United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Bowling Green Division
JADE A. JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
H. BRENT BRENNENSTUHL, District Judge.
Before the Court is the complaint (DN 1) of Jade A. Johnson ("Plaintiff") seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Both the Plaintiff (DN 12) and Defendant (DN 13) have filed a Fact and Law Summary.
Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, the parties have consented to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge conducting all further proceedings in this case, including issuance of a memorandum opinion and entry of judgment, with direct review by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in the event an appeal is filed (DN 10). By Order entered November 5, 2013 (DN 11), the parties were notified that oral arguments would not be held unless a written request therefor was filed and granted.
FINDINGS OF FACT
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits on November 17, 2009 (Tr. 45, 148-151, 152-155). Plaintiff alleged that she became disabled on September 2, 2009 as a result of bipolar disorder, inability to read or write or follow instructions, and inability to be around people (Tr. 45, 210). The claim was denied initially on May 19, 2010, and upon reconsideration on August 25, 2010 (Tr. 45). Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a written request for hearing on September 22, 2010 (Tr. 45). Administrative Law Judge James E. Craig ("ALJ") conducted a hearing on October 24, 2011 in Bowling Green, Kentucky (Tr. 45). Plaintiff was present and represented by Mary Burchett-Bower, an attorney (Tr. 45). Also present and testifying was Thomas Holcomb, Ed.D., an impartial vocational expert (Tr. 45).
In a decision dated November 3, 2011, the ALJ evaluated this adult disability claim pursuant to the five-step sequential evaluation process promulgated by the Commissioner (Tr. 46-55). At the first step, the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 17, 2009, the alleged onset date (Tr. 47). At the second step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's borderline intellectual functioning, depressive disorder, and an anxiety disorder with features of posttraumatic stress disorder and social anxiety are "severe" impairments within the meaning of the regulations (Tr. 47). Notably, at the second step, the ALJ also determined that Plaintiff does not have a severe physical impairment (Tr. 47). At the third step, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1 (Tr. 47).
At the fourth step, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations:
She is limited to simple, repetitive work (no detailed or complex work), which is thing-oriented. She can have no more than occasional, intermittent contact with co-workers and supervisors, but no contact with the public. Instructions should be given verbally. She should avoid fast paced or quota based work.
(Tr. 48). The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff has no past relevant work (Tr. 53).
The ALJ proceeded to the fifth step where he considered Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience as well as testimony from the vocational expert (Tr. 53-54). The ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing a significant number of jobs that exist in the national economy (Tr. 53). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been under a "disability, " as defined in the Social Security Act, from November 17, 2009 through November 3, 2011, the date of the decision (Tr. 55).
Plaintiff timely filed a request for the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision (Tr. 23-26). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 1-3).
CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
The Social Security Act authorizes payment of Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income to persons with disabilities. 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. (Title II Disability Insurance Benefits), 1381 et seq. (Title XVI Supplemental Security Income). The term "disability" is defined as an
[i]nability 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 (12) months.
42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) (Title II), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (Title XVI); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a); Barnhart v. Walton , 535 U.S. 212, 214 (2002); Abbott v. Sullivan , 905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990).
The Commissioner has promulgated regulations setting forth a five-step sequential evaluation process for evaluating a disability claim. See "Evaluation of disability in general, " 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. In summary, the evaluation proceeds as follows:
1) Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity?
2) Does the claimant have a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that satisfies the duration requirement and significantly limits his or her ability to do basic work activities?
3) Does the claimant have an impairment that meets or medically equals the criteria of a listed impairment within Appendix 1?
4) Does the claimant have the residual functional capacity to return to his or her past relevant work?
5) Does the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience allow him or her to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy?
Here, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim at the fifth step.
As previously mentioned, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 1-3). At that point, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.955(b), 404.981, 422.210(a); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(h) (finality of the Commissioner's decision).
Review by the Court is limited to determining whether the findings set forth in the final decision of the Commissioner are supported by "substantial evidence, " 42 U.S.C. Section 405(g); Cotton v. Sullivan , 2 F.3d 692, 695 (6th Cir. 1993); Wyatt v. Secretary of Health and Human Services , 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992), and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Landsaw v. Secretary of Health and Human Services , 803 F.2d 211, 213 (6th Cir. 1986). "Substantial evidence exists when a reasonable mind could accept the evidence as adequate to support the challenged conclusion, even if that evidence could support a decision the other way." Cotton , 2 F.3d at 695 (quoting Casey v. Secretary of Health and Human Serverices , 987 F.2d 1230, 1233 (6th Cir. 1993)). In reviewing a case for substantial evidence, the Court "may not try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in evidence, nor decide questions of credibility." Cohen v. Secretary of Health and Human Services , 964 F.2d 524, 528 (6th Cir. 1992) (quoting Garner v. Heckler , 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984)).
Evaluation of Plaintiff's Impairments and Listings
Here, Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's Finding No. 3, which addresses the third step in the fivestep sequential evaluation process promulgated by the Commissioner (DN 12, Plaintiff's Fact and Law Summary at Pages 2-8). At the third step, a claimant has the burden of demonstrating she has an impairment that meets or medically equals a listing in Appendix 1. See, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d); Burgess v. Sec'y of Health and Human Serv's. , 835 F.2d 139, 140 (6th Cir. 1987). To meet a listing in Appendix 1, the medical records regarding the impairment must satisfy both the diagnosis and severity requirements for the listing. Social Security Ruling 96-5p; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1525(d), 416.925(d); Hale v. Sec'y of Health and Human Serv's. , 816 F.2d 1078, 1083 (6th Cir. 1984). If the impairment does not meet the severity requirements of a listing, then the Administrative Law Judge looks to the opinions of the state agency medical advisors and/or the opinion of a testifying medical expert for guidance on the issue of whether the medical findings are at least equal in severity and duration of the listing findings. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1526(a) and (b), 416.926(a) and (b); Social Security Ruling 96-5p; Deters v. Sec'y of Health, Educ and Welfare , 789 F.2d 1181, 1186 (5th Cir. 1986). Since a finding that a claimant meets or equals a listing is dispositive of the case, the finding is reserved to the Administrative Law Judge. Social Security Ruling 96-5p.
The Sixth Circuit recognizes that "[a]t step three of the evaluation process, it is the burden of the claimant to show that he meets or equals the listed impairment." Thacker v. Soc. Sec. Admin. , 93 F.Appx. 725, 727-728 (6th Cir. 2004) ( citing Burgess v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs. , 835 F.2d 139, 160 (6th Cir. 1987). "When a claimant alleges the meets or equals a listed impairment, he must present specific medical findings that satisfy the various tests listed in the description of the applicable impairment or present medical evidence which describes how the impairment has such equivalency." Thacker , 93 F.Appx. at 728. It is insufficient for claimant to come "close to meeting the requirements of a listed impairment." Elam ex rel Golay v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , ...