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Elliott v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

September 30, 2019

AARON J. ELLIOTT, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          WAVERLY D. CRENSHAW, JR. CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Aaron J. Elliott’s Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record (Doc. No. 13), to which the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) has responded (Doc. No. 15).[1] Upon consideration of the parties’ briefs and the transcript of the administrative record (Doc. No. 9), [2] the motion will be denied and the decision of the Commissioner’s decision will be affirmed.

         I. Introduction

         Elliott filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act on September 14, 2016, alleging disability onset as of December 20, 2005, due to post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), asthma like symptoms, migraines, depression, anxiety, and sleep apnea. (Tr. 12, 92-93, 168, 206.) Elliott’s claim was denied at the initial level on November 7, 2016, and on reconsideration on April 26, 2017. (Tr. 12, 111, 119.) Elliott subsequently requested de novo review of his case by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 12, 121-22.) The ALJ heard the case on February 6, 2018, when Elliott appeared with counsel and gave testimony. (Tr. 12, 31-83.) Testimony was also received by Elliott’s ex-wife and a vocational expert. (Tr. 12, 63-82.) The ALJ issued a written decision finding Elliott not disabled. (Tr. 12-26.) That decision contains the following enumerated findings:

1. The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on March 31, 2013.
2. The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of December 20, 2005 through his date last insured of March 31, 2013 (20 C.F.R. 404.1571 et seq.).
3. Through the date last insured, the claimant had the following severe impairments: posttraumatic stress disorder, asthma, and obesity (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. Through the date last insured, 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 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 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 a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: He can never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds. He must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and extreme heat, dust, odors, fumes, gases, smoke, and pulmonary irritants. He cannot work with or near dangerous and moving type of equipment or machinery, moving mechanical parts and unprotected heights but can operate a motor vehicle. He can understand, remember and apply simple to multi-step detailed instructions and tasks. He can interact occasionally with supervisors, co-workers and with the general public. He can maintain concentration, persistence and pace for two hours at a time over an eight-hour workday. He can adapt to infrequent changes in a work setting.
6. Through the date last insured, the claimant was unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. 404.1565).
7. The claimant was born on July 21, 1983 and was 29 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date last insured (20 C.F.R. 404.1563).
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. 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 C.F.R. 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 C.F.R. 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 20, 2005, the alleged onset date, through March 31, 2013, the date last insured (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(g)).

(Tr. 14, 15, 16-17, 24, 25, 26.) On June 19, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Elliott’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision (Tr. 1-8), thereby rendering that decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         II. Standard of Review

         The Court is limited to determining whether the Commissioner’s decision concerning Elliott’s disability is supported by substantial evidence. “Under the substantial evidence standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains ‘sufficien[t] evidence’ to support the agency’s factual determinations.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938) (emphasis deleted)). “[T]he threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high.” Id. at 1154. Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla.” Id. (citations omitted). “It means – and means only – ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Id. (quoting Consol. Edison, 305 U.S. at 229). The role of the Court is to apply this standard, not “resolve conflicts in evidence[ ] or decide questions of credibility.” Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007).

         III. Analysis

         A. The Five-Step Inquiry

         The claimant bears the ultimate burden of establishing an entitlement to benefits by proving his or her “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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The claimant’s “physical or mental impairment” must “result[] from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” Id. § 423(d)(3). The Commissioner considers a claimant’s case under a five-step sequential evaluation process, described by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals as follows:

(1) a claimant who is engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found to be disabled regardless of medical findings; (2) a claimant who does not have a severe impairment will not be found to be disabled; (3) a finding of disability will be made without consideration of vocational factors, if a claimant is not working and is suffering from a severe impairment which meets the duration requirement and which meets or equals a listed impairment in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the Regulations. Claimants with lesser impairments proceed to step four; (4) a claimant who can perform work that he has done in the past will not be found to be disabled; and (5) if a claimant cannot perform his past work, other factors including age, education, past work experience and residual functional capacity must be considered to determine if other work can be performed.

Parks v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 413 Fed.App’x 856, 862 (6th Cir. 2011) (citing Cruse v. Comm’rof Soc. Sec., 502 F.3d 532, 539 (6th Cir. 2007)); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant bears the burden through step four of proving the existence and severity of the limitations her impairments cause and the fact that she cannot perform past relevant work; however, at step five, “the burden shifts to the Commissioner to ‘identify a significant number of jobs in the economy that accommodate the claimant’s residual functional capacity . . . .” Kepke v. Comm’r of Soc. ...


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