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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

September 23, 2013

GARY DAVID SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

DANNY C. REEVES, District Judge.

This matter is pending for consideration of cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff Gary David Smith ("Smith" or "the Claimant") and Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"). [Record Nos. 12, 13] Smith asserts that the administrative law judge assigned to his case ("ALJ") erred in evaluating the medical source opinions. As a result, he seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and an award of benefits. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment. The relief sought by Smith will be denied.

I.

On April 28, 2010, Smith applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). [Tr., pp. 171-172] He alleged a disability beginning February 14, 2010. [Tr., p. 171] The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. [Tr., pp. 85, 89] Smith, along with his attorney William Grover Arnett and vocational expert ("VE") Anthony Michael, appeared before ALJ Caroline Beers on October 7, 2010, for an administrative hearing. [Tr., p. 46] In a decision dated November 4, 2010, ALJ Beers found that Smith was not disabled under the Act. [Tr., p. 40]

Smith was forty-nine years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. [Tr., p. 38] He is a high school graduate and has previous work experience as a welder and mechanic. [Tr., pp. 55-56, 192] His alleged disability stems from numbness and limited use of his left hand, ulcerative colitis, hypertension, and diabetes. [Tr., p. 190] After reviewing the record and the testimony presented at the hearing, the ALJ concluded that Smith suffers from a combination of severe impairments, including "left status post ORIF four-part intra-articular distal radius fracture, left carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, and ulcerative colitis." [Tr., p. 31] Notwithstanding these impairments, ALJ Beers found that Smith retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a limited range of medium work. [Tr., p. 34] However, because of additional limitations, and after considering the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that Smith could perform all of the requirements of light and sedentary work. [Tr., p. 39] Additionally, she limited Smith to:

occasional use of his left upper extremity in reaching, handling[, ] and feeling (reaching includes overhead and to the left and right, handling is use of the whole hand to seize, grasp, hold, and turn, and feeling is use of tips of fingers to feel size, shape temperature[, ] and texture

[ Id. ]

Based on the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found that Smith could not perform past relevant work. [Tr., p. 38] However, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, she found that Smith could perform other jobs, such as room service clerk, information clerk, and retail order clerk. [Tr., p. 39] And after determining that Smith could perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the ALJ concluded that Smith was not disabled. As a result of this assessment, Smith was denied a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. [ Id. ]

II.

Under the Social Security Act, a "disability" is defined as "the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity' because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment of at least one year's expected duration." Cruse v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 502 F.3d 532, 539 (6th Cir. 2007). A claimant's Social Security disability determination is made by an ALJ in accordance with "a five-step sequential evaluation process.'" Combs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 459 F.3d 640, 642 (6th Cir. 2006) (en banc) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)). If the claimant satisfies the first four steps of the process, the burden shifts to the Commissioner with respect to the fifth step. See Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003).

First, the claimant must demonstrate that he is not engaged in substantial gainful employment at the time of the disability application. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant must show that he suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Third, if the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful employment and has a severe impairment which is expected to last for at least twelve months and which meets or equals a listed impairment, he will be considered disabled without regard to age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Fourth, if the Commissioner cannot make a determination of disability based on medical evaluations and current work activity and the claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner will then review the claimant's RFC and relevant past work to determine whether he can perform his past work. If he can, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

Under the fifth step of the analysis, if the claimant's impairment prevents him from doing past work, the Commissioner will consider his RFC, age, education, and past work experience to determine whether he can perform other work. If he cannot perform other work, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). The Commissioner has the burden of proof only on "the fifth step, proving that there is work available in the economy that the claimant can perform.'" White v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 312 F.Appx. 779, 785 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 391 (6th Cir. 1999)).

Judicial review of the denial of a claim for Social Security benefits is limited to determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). The substantial-evidence standard presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which decision makers can go either way, without interference from the court. McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as sufficient to support the conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007).

If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed even if the Court would decide the case differently and even if the claimant's position is also supported by substantial evidence. Smith v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 482 F.3d 873, 876 (6th Cir. 2007); Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007); Longworth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005); Casey v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 987 F.2d 1230, 1233 (6th Cir. 1993). Thus, the Commissioner's findings are conclusive if they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

III.

Smith raises several issues in his motion for summary judgment. First, he argues that the ALJ did not properly weigh the opinions of his treating and examining doctors along with the statement of his supervisor, Kenny Hann. Second, Smith claims that the ALJ's erred in her RFC determination. Third, Smith asserts that the ALJ erred in failing to adequately represent Smith's limitations and restrictions in her hypothetical questions to the VE. Fourth, Smith contends that the ALJ should have found Smith disabled under 201.14 of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines. Fifth, Smith argues that the ALJ erred in her evaluation of Smith's mental condition. The Commissioner contends that the decision denying benefits to Smith is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.

A. Weight of the Evidence

As an initial matter, Smith asserts that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinions of physicians Dr. Terry Wright, Dr. Jerry Brackett, and treating physician Dr. Ira Potter. Smith also claims that the ALJ gave improper weight to the opinion of consulting physician Dr. Diodado Irlandez. Specifically, Smith asserts that the ALJ "ignored the disabling RFC's of Drs. Potter, Wright, and Brackett even though the opinions were consistent with each other and also supported the claimant's testimony" and that the ALJ relied upon a "nonexamining anesthesiologist" rather than "three treating and/or examining physicians." [Record No. 12, pp. 11-12] Essentially, Smith is arguing that the ALJ misapplied the treating physician rule.

Generally, a treating source's medical opinion will be given controlling weight if it is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence" in the claimant's record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); see also Walker v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 980 F.2d 1066, 1070 (6th Cir. 1992). The failure to give the treating source's opinion controlling weight does not necessarily mean that the opinion should be rejected. Rather, the ALJ must determine what weight to give to medical opinion by considering the following factors: (1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (3) the supportability of the opinion; (4) the consistency of the opinion with regard to the record as a whole; (5) whether the treating source is a specialist in the area of his or her opinion; and (6) any other factors which tend to support ...


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