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Dillinger v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville

September 27, 2019

ERIN B. DILLINGER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DEBRA C. POPLIN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This case is before the undersigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b), Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and the consent of the parties [Doc. 19]. Now before the Court are Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 16 & 17] and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 21 & 22]. Erin B. Dillinger (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“the ALJ”), the final decision of Defendant Andrew M. Saul (“the Commissioner”). For the reasons that follow, the Court will DENY Plaintiff’s motion and GRANT the Commissioner’s motion.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff previously filed an application for disability insurance benefits on October 11, 2011, as well as an application for supplemental security income on November 15, 2011. [Tr. 12]. In both applications, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning on June 1, 2009. [Id.]. On April 17, 2013, ALJ Mary C. Montanus issued a partially favorable decision, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled from June 1, 2009 through July 31, 2011. [Id.]; see [Tr. 77–99]. However, ALJ Montanus found that Plaintiff became disabled on August 1, 2011, but that medical improvement occurred on December 28, 2012, and Plaintiff was no longer disabled as of that date. [Id.]. Plaintiff did not appeal this finding of partial disability.

         On January 28, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., alleging disability beginning on June I, 2009. [Tr. 12, 203–11]. After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. [Tr. 155]. A hearing was held on February 8, 2017. [Tr. 37–77]. On August 29, 2017, ALJ Joan A. Lawrence found that Plaintiff was not disabled. [Tr. 12–23]. ALJ Lawrence applied res judicata and found that the previous ALJ’s decision was final as to the period between June 1, 2009 and December 27, 2012, and “addresse[d] December 28, 2012 through the claimant’s date last insured.” [Tr. 12]. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on April 6, 2018 [Tr. 1–6], making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed a Complaint with this Court on July 13, 2018, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision under Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act. [Doc. 1]. The parties have filed competing dispositive motions, and this matter is now ripe for adjudication.

         II. ALJ FINDINGS

         The ALJ made the following findings:

1. The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on June 30, 2016.
2. The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of December 28, 2012 through her date last insured of June 30, 2016 (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq.).
3. Through the date last insured, the claimant had the following severe impairments: psoriatic arthritis, osteoarthritis in hips and right knee, asthma, degenerative disc disease, diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, depression (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. Through the date last insured, the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that she can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and climb stairs; must avoid extreme temperatures, humidity, vibration, and hazards; avoid dust, fumes, smoke, and other pulmonary irritants; no crawling, climbing, ladders, or overhead work; can do simple work; and can deal with change one-third of the workday.
6. Through the date last insured, the claimant was unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565).
7. The claimant was born on April 21, 1979 and was 37 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-40, on the date last insured (20 CFR 404.1563).
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
10. Through the date last insured, considering the claimant’s age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed (20 CFR 404.1569 and 404.1569(a)).
11. The claimant was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from December 28, 2012 through June 30, 2016, the date last insured (20 CFR 404.1520(g)).

         [Tr. 15–22].

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When reviewing the Commissioner’s determination of whether an individual is disabled pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court is limited to determining whether the ALJ’s decision was reached through application of the correct legal standards and in accordance with the procedure mandated by the regulations and rulings promulgated by the Commissioner, and whether the ALJ’s findings are supported by substantial evidence. Blakley v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted); Wilson v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004).

         Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Cutlip v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). It is immaterial whether the record may also possess substantial evidence to support a different conclusion from that reached by the ALJ, or whether the reviewing judge may have decided the case differently. Crisp v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 790 F.2d 450, 453 n.4 (6th Cir. 1986). The substantial evidence standard is intended to create a “‘zone of choice’ within which the Commissioner can act, without the fear of court interference.” Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 773 (6th Cir. 2001) (quoting Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986)). Therefore, the Court will not “try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor decide questions of credibility.” Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted).

         On review, the plaintiff “bears the burden of proving his entitlement to benefits.” Boyes v. Sec’y. of Health & Human Servs., 46 F.3d 510, 512 (6th Cir. 1994) (citation omitted).

         IV. ...


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