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Hembree v. Colvin

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

July 12, 2013

DAVID HEMBREE, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

EDWARD B. ATKINS, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff David Hembree brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to challenge a final decision of the Defendant Commissioner denying his application for supplemental security income. [Record No. 1]. This matter has been referred to the undersigned for preparation of a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). [Record No. 11]. Now ripe for decision are the Parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth herein, it is recommended that the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [Record No. 8] be denied, the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Record No. 10] be granted, and that Judgment be entered affirming the final decision of the Commissioner.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The Plaintiff filed an application under Title XVI for supplemental security income on August 12, 2008 alleging disability beginning December 6, 2005. [Tr. 114-118]. In his Disability Report, Form SSA-3368, Hembree claimed his work ability was limited due to a back condition, depression, and high blood pressure. [Tr. 137]. His relevant employment experience included work as a custodian. [Tr. 138]. The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. [Tr. 62-65, 69-71]. At Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing, presided over by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Cam Oetter was conducted by video on October 28, 2010. [Tr. 34-53]. Plaintiff, represented by Roger Riggs, testified at the hearing. [Id.]. Vocational expert Dr. Silvio Reyes also testified. [Id.]. The Plaintiff was 48 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision. [Tr. 22, 115].

ALJ Oetter denied the Plaintiff's claim for benefits in a written decision dated January 26, 2011. [Tr. 19-28]. He evaluated the Plaintiff's claim using the Commissioner's five-step sequential evaluation process Id .; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(g). The ALJ found that the Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of "hypertension, diabetes, degenerative disc disease, and mild degenerative disease of the right shoulder." [Tr. 21]. Despite these conditions, the ALJ found that "[t]he claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926)." [Tr. 22]. Continuing with his evaluation, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a full range of light work, as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), with the exceptions that he is only capable of occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, crouching, and crawling postures, but he can climb no ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, or work around unusual hazards such as unprotected heights. [Tr. 22]. In light of this RFC, the ALJ found the Plaintiff incapable of performing his past relevant work as a custodian. [Tr. 26]. The ALJ determined, however, that considering the Plaintiff's RFC, education, age, and work experience, there are other jobs in significant numbers in the national economy which the Plaintiff could perform. [Tr. 27]. To support this determination, the ALJ relied upon testimony of the vocational expert to establish that the Plaintiff could perform a number of other jobs in the national economy, including occupations such as a ticket checker, lens inserter, or label cutter. Id . This determination led to the finding that the Plaintiff is not disabled. Following the adverse decision of the ALJ, Plaintiff properly exhausted his administrative remedies by requesting review by the Social Security Appeals Council, which denied review. [Tr. 1-4].

The Plaintiff initiated the present action by filing his Complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky on September 10, 2012. [Record No. 1]. In his motion for Summary Judgment, the Plaintiff sets forth multiple arguments for reversal of the ALJ's decision, specifically challenging credibility determinations of the ALJ. [Record No. 8]. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ's decision should be affirmed, as there is substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's credibility findings and the decision. [Record No. 10]. Following briefing, this matter was referred to the undersigned for preparation of a Report and Recommendation, and now stands ripe for consideration. [ See Record No. 11].

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A plaintiff bears the burden on appeal to the district court to show that the administrative decision was in error. Scharlow v. Schweiker , 655 F.2d 645, 648 (5th Cir. 1981); Brooks v. Sullivan , 766 F.Supp. 584, 588 (N.D. Ill. 1991). This burden on appeal stems from the overall burden a plaintiff bears to prove disability at all stages of the administrative proceedings. Scharlow , 655 F.2d at 648; Brooks , 766 F.Supp. 588; see 20 C.F.R. 404.1512(a)(c); see also 42 U.S.C. 405(g). Because a plaintiff bears the burden on appeal to show that the administrative decision was erroneous, general allegations of error will not support a claim that an ALJ's decision is unsupported by substantial evidence. Pugh v. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare , 448 F.Supp. 37, 41 (D. Kan. 1978).

The scope of judicial review in this case is not de novo , but instead is limited to the record itself to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Cohen v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs. , 964 F.2d 524, 528 (6th Cir. 1992); Hogg v. Sullivan , 987 F.2d 328, 331 (6th Cir. 1993). The Sixth Circuit has articulated that "substantial evidence exists when a reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate to support a conclusion." Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). The limited nature of substantial evidence review prevents the reviewing court from substituting its judgment for that of the ALJ. Rather, so long as substantial evidence exists, the reviewing court should affirm the ALJ's decision "even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion." Longworth v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. , 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla of evidence but less than preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted).

III. ANALYSIS

In his Motion for Summary Judgment, the Plaintiff claims that the ALJ committed three (3) errors in denying Hembree's application for supplemental security income:

a) That the ALJ failed to give great weight to the opinion of the treating physician, Dr. George Pittman, and failed to give adequate reasoning for discrediting his opinion;[2]

b) That the ALJ failed to consider the cumulative effect of all the claimant's symptoms on his capacity to engage in gainful employment; and

c) That the ALJ failed to uphold his duty to investigate the facts and develop arguments both for ...


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