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Wolfenbarger v. Saul

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

September 27, 2019

KRISTEN WOLFENBARGER, o/b/o MICHAEL WOLFENBARGER Deceased Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ORDER ACCORDINGLY, 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. 14]. Now before the Court are Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 15 & 16] and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 18 & 19]. Plaintiff additionally filed a Response [Doc. 20] to Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. Kristen Wolfenbarger (“Plaintiff”), on behalf of Michael Wolfenbarger (“Wolfenbarger”), 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

         On January 13, 2015, Wolfenbarger 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 April 15, 2015. [Tr. 12]. After his application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Wolfenbarger requested a hearing before an ALJ. [Tr. 83–85]. A hearing was held on February 14, 2017. [Tr. 28–43]. Michael Wolfenbarger passed away on March 20, 2017. [Tr. 171], and his widow, Kristen Wolfenbarger, subsequently filed a Notice Regarding Substitution of Party [Tr. 134] on April 9, 2017.

         On November 21, 2017, the ALJ found that Wolfenbarger was not disabled until November 28, 2016, when he reached the age of 55 and qualified for benefits pursuant to Rule 202.04 of the Medical Vocational Guidelines. [Tr. 8–22]. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on July 18, 2018 [Tr. 1–5], making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed a Complaint with this Court on August 9, 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 meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2019.
2. The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity after alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq.).
3. Since the alleged onset date of disability, April 15, 2015, through the date of his death on March 20, 2017, the claimant had the following severe impairments: back pain, knee pain, status-post knee replacement, osteoarthritis, diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, and repressive disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. Since the alleged onset date of disability, April 15, 2015, the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled 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 from April 15, 2015, through the date of his death, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that he could occasionally perform bending, stooping, kneeling, squatting, crouching, crawling, and climbing. He could deal with people one-third of the time.
6. From April 15, 2015, through March 20, 2017, the claimant was unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565).
7. Prior to the established disability onset date, the claimant was an individual closely approaching advanced age. On November 28, 2016, the claimant’s age category changed to an individual of advanced age (20 CFR 404.1563).
8. The claimant had at least a high school education and was able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564).
9. Transferability of job skills was not an issue in this case because the claimant’s past relevant work was unskilled (20 CFR 404.1568).
10. Prior to November 28, 2016, the date the claimant’s age category changed, 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. Beginning on November 28, 2016, the date the claimant’s age category changed, considering the claimant’s age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were no jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed (20 CFR 404.1560(c) and 404.1566).
12. The claimant was not disabled prior to November 28, 2016, but became disabled on that date and he continued to be disabled through the date of his death on March 20, 2017. His disability was expected to last twelve months past the onset date (20 CFR 404.1520(g)).

[Tr. 15–21].

         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. DISABILITY ELIGIBILITY

         “Disability” is the inability “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant will only be considered disabled:

if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or ...

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