STANLEY BRYANT, JR. Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
DAVID L. BUNNING, District Judge.
Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) to obtain judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Court, having reviewed the record and for the reasons set forth herein, will reverse and remand the Commissioner's decision, as it failed to follow the regulations and thus deprived Plaintiff of a substantial right.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff Stanley Bryant, Jr. filed applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits on March 27, 2009, alleging disability as of September 23, 2008. (Tr. 156-162). These applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 85-101). At Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was conducted on December 21, 2010, by Administrative Law Judge Don C. Paris. (Tr. 37). On January 14, 2011, the ALJ ruled that Plaintiff was not disabled and therefore not entitled to either benefit. (Tr. 22-31). This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on May 8, 2012. (Tr. 1-4).
On July 2, 2012, Plaintiff filed the instant action. The matter has culminated in cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for adjudication. (Docs. # 11, 14).
A. Overview of the Process
Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is restricted to determining whether it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards. See Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Courts are not to conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or make credibility determinations. See Cutlip, 25 F.3d at 286. Rather, we are to affirm the Commissioner's decision, provided it is supported by substantial evidence, even if we might have decided the case differently. See Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999). However, even if supported by substantial evidence, "a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the SSA fails to follow its own regulations and where that error prejudices a claimant on the merits or deprives the claimant of a substantial right." Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007) (citing Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 546-47 (6th Cir. 2004)).
The ALJ, in determining disability, conducts a five-step analysis. Step 1 considers whether the claimant is still performing substantial gainful activity; Step 2, whether any of the claimant's impairments are "severe"; Step 3, whether the impairments meet or equal a listing in the Listing of Impairments; Step 4, whether the claimant can still perform her past relevant work; and Step 5, whether significant numbers of other jobs exist in the national economy which the claimant can perform. As to the last step, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the Commissioner. See Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003); Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).
B. The ALJ's Determination
At Step 1, the ALJ found that there was no evidence that Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of his disability. (Tr. 25). At Step 2, the ALJ found Plaintiff's obesity, possible rotator cuff tendinitis and degenerative disk disease of the lumbar spine were severe impairments within the meaning of the regulations. ( Id. ).
At Step 3, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed in, or medically equal to an impairment listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 26). In doing so, the ALJ found that neither his possible rotator cuff tendinitis nor his degenerative disk disease meets or equals the requirements of Listing 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint) or 1.04 (disorders of the spine) because "the record is devoid of any evidence of limitations in one or both extremities resulting in ineffective fine and gross manipulation as well as nerve root compression, spinal arachnoiditis, or lumbar spinal stenosis with accompanying ineffective ambulation." ( Id. ).
At Step 4, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work activity with the following additional restrictions:
the claimant can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand/walk a total of six hours in an eight hour day; sit a total of six hours in an eight hour day; occasionally climb stairs and ramps but because of body habitus, never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally stoop, kneel, and crouch but never crawl; no more than frequent reaching overhead with the left upper extremity, avoid concentrated exposure to fully body vibration; and because of his body habitus, should avoid all hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery
(Tr. 27). Based upon this RFC, the ALJ concluded at Step 4 that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. 29).
Accordingly, the ALJ proceeded to the final step of the sequential evaluation. At Step 5, the ALJ found that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 30). The ALJ based this conclusion on testimony from a vocational expert (VE), in response to a hypothetical question assuming an individual of Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC. ( Id. ). The VE testified that a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff's vocational profile and RFC could work as a general clerical worker (9, 000 jobs in Kentucky/719, 000 nationally), information clerk (2, 500 jobs in Kentucky/200, 000 nationally), and gate guard (2, 500 jobs in Kentucky/250, 000 nationally). ( Id. ). Based on the testimony of the VE and Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work and thus concluded that he was not under a "disability, " as defined by the Social Security Act. (Tr. 30-31).
Plaintiff advances two arguments on appeal. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by giving little weight to the medical opinions provided by his treating physicians. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's assessment of his credibility is flawed. Each of these arguments will be discussed in turn.
1. The ALJ erred by failing to provide "good reasons" for giving little weight to the treating sources
Plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ's treatment of assessments completed by his two treating physicians, doctors John Vaughan and Finley Hendrickson. Dr. Vaughan submitted a medical report and functional capacity questionnaire dated June 7, 2010 and September 7, 2010, respectively, while Dr. ...