United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville
ALLISON M. RIGGS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
DAVE WHALIN, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Allison M. Riggs has filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security that denied her applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI). Riggs applied for DIB and SSI on June 3, 2010, alleging that she was disabled as of Feb. 15, 2009, due to bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder, depression, anxiety and body dysmorphic disorder (Tr. 222). The Commissioner denied Riggs' claims on initial consideration (Tr. 106, 107) and on reconsideration (Tr. 130-131). Riggs requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (Tr. 182).
ALJ George A. Jacobs conducted a hearing in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 30, 2012 (Tr. 43-75). Riggs attended with her representative, Trevor Smith (Tr. 43). Riggs and vocational expert (VE) Tina Stambaugh testified at the hearing (Tr. 46-69. 70-75). Following the conclusion of the hearing, ALJ Jacobs entered a hearing decision on April 18, 2012, that found Riggs is not disabled for the purposes of the Social Security Act (Tr. 22-38).
In his adverse decision, ALJ Jacobs made the following findings:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2012.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since Feb.22, 2009, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. 404.1571, et seq. and 416.971, et seq. ).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and depression (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals 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, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: the claimant can perform simple, repetitive tasks with no production rate pace work, but rather goal-oriented work. The claimant can have occasional contact with co-workers and supervisors and no contact with the public.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. 404.1565 and 416.965).
7. The claimant was born on July 16, 1985, and was 23-years-old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 C.F.R. 404.1563 and 416.963).
8. The claimant has at least a high-school education and is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. 404.1564 and 416.964).
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 transferrable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 2).
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 C.F.R. 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969 and 416.969(a)).
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from Feb. 22, 2009, through the date of this decision (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).
(Tr. 27-37). Riggs sought review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council (Tr. 19-21). The Appeals Council denied her request for review, finding no reason under the Rules to review ALJ Jacobs' decision (Tr. 1-6). The present lawsuit followed.
The Five-Step Sequential Evaluation Process.
Disability is defined by law as being the inability to do 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. See, 20 CFR §§ 404.1505, 416.905(a). To determine whether a claimant for DIB or SSI benefits satisfies such definition, a 5-step evaluation process has been developed. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520, 916.920(a). At step 1, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the Commissioner will find the claimant to be not disabled. See, 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.971. See, Dinkel v. Secretary, 910 F.2d, 315, 318 (6th Cir. 1990).
If the claimant is not working, then the Commissioner next must determine at step 2 of the evaluation process whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of severe impairments that significantly limit his or her ability to perform basic work activities. See 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the impairments of the claimant are determined by the Commissioner to be non-severe, in other words, so slight that they could not result in a finding of disability irrespective of a claimant's vocational factors, then the claimant will be determined to be not disabled at step 2. See, Higgs v. Bowen, 880 F.2d 960, 962 (6th Cir. 1988); Mowery v. Heckler, 771 F.2d 966, 971-72 (6th Cir. 1985).
If the claimant has a severe impairment or impairments, then the Commissioner at step 3 of the process will determine whether such impairments are sufficiently serious to satisfy the listing of impairments found in Appendix 1 of Subpart B of Part 404 of the federal regulations. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(A)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii) The claimant will be determined to be automatically disabled without consideration of his or her age, education or work experience if the claimant's impairments are sufficiently severe to meet or equal the criteria of any impairment listed in the Appendix. See, Lankford v. Sullivan, 942 F.2d 301, 306 (6th Cir. 1991); Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990).
When the severity of the claimant's impairments does not meet or equal the listings, then the Commissioner must determine at step 4 whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity (RFC) given his or her impairments to permit a return to any of his or her past relevant work. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). See, Smith v. Secretary, 893 F.2d 106, 109-110 (6th Cir. 1989). A claimant who retains the residual functional capacity, despite his or her severe impairments, to perform past relevant work is not disabled. 20 CFR §§ 404.1560(b)(3), 416.960(b)(3) The burden switches to the Commissioner at step 5 of the sequential evaluation process to establish that the claimant, who cannot return to his or her past relevant work, remains capable of performing alternative work in the national economy given his or her residual functional capacity, age, education and past relevant work experience. See, 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1560(c), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.960(c); Felisky v. Bowen, 35 F.3d 1027, 1035 (6th Cir. 1994); Herr v. Commissioner, 203 F.3d 388, 391 (6th Cir. 1999). Collectively, the above disability evaluation analysis is commonly referred to as the "5-step sequential evaluation process."
Standard of Review.
Review of a decision of the Commissioner is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The statute, and case law that interprets it, require a reviewing court to affirm the findings of the Commissioner if they are supported by substantial evidence and the Commissioner has employed the appropriate legal standard. Walters v. Commissioner of Social Security, 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997) ("This Court must affirm the Commissioner's conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standards or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.). Substantial evidence is defined by the Supreme Court to be "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). See also, Lashley v. Sec'y of HHS, 708 F.2d 1048, 1053 (6th Cir. 1983) (citing Perales ). It is more than a mere scintilla of evidence or evidence that merely creates the suspicion of the existence of a fact, but must be enough evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict if the matter were tried to a jury. Sias v. Sec'y of HHS, 861 F.2d 475, 479 n. 1 (6th Cir. 1988).
The substantiality of the evidence is to be determined based upon a review of the record taken as a whole, not simply some evidence, but rather the entirety of the record to include those portions that detract from its weight. Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984); Laskowski v. Apfel, 100 F.Supp.2d 474, 482 (E.D. Mich. 2000). So long as the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence, it must be upheld by the federal court even if the record might support a contrary conclusion. Smith v. Sec'y of HHS, 893 F.2d 106, 108 (6th Cir. 1989). The substantial evidence standard "presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which decision makers can go either way, without interference from the courts." Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) ( en banc ).
The Material Facts.
Claimant Allison Riggs is 5'10" tall, weighs 200 lbs. and is right-handed (Tr. 50). She was born July 16, 1985, and was 26-years-old at the time of the hearing held before ALJ Jacobs on March 30, 2012 (Tr. 47). Riggs is married, has a 2-year-old son with her husband, and is raising a 3-year-old niece and her husband's 9-year-old son (Tr. 48). She lives with her husband and children in a single family residence, has a driver's license and a high school diploma (Tr. 48-49). Otherwise, Riggs has no vocational training or military service. She did not require special education classes in high school (Tr. 49-50).
Riggs has not worked since Feb. 22, 2009 (Tr. 50). She does take college courses online, however, after she attempted to quit her course work, she was forced to resume taking online classes in order to defer the collection of her student loans (Tr. 51-52). Riggs testified at the hearing that she does have physical problems with both of her knees, which cause her to experience pain if she stands for more than half an hour, although her doctor has not restricted her physical activities (Tr. 52-53). Her only medications are bupropion XL, perphenazine and medication for migraine headaches, which she testified she has every day (Tr. 53). According to Riggs, her daily migraine headaches last anywhere from an hour to seven hours and require her to avoid light and noise (Tr. 54).
Riggs testified that she suffers from anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder (Tr. 55). According to her, her prescribed psychotropic medication does not provide her meaningful relief (Tr. 55). She has problems with concentration and with being around people (Id.). Otherwise, Riggs has only entered the hospital on one occasion due to her emotional problems when she self-admitted to University Hospital in October of 2011, but was released after several hours (Id.). Riggs has been receiving monthly psychiatric treatment from a psychiatrist for approximately 9 years prior to the hearing. She testified that her psychiatric treatment has not helped with her emotional problems (Tr. 56).
At the time of the hearing, Riggs was receiving treatment at UofL Psychiatric Services; before that, she received mental health treatment through Seven Counties Services (Tr. 61). Riggs explained that her symptoms include both auditory and visual hallucinations due to her bipolar disorder (Tr. 62). She explained that she "hears voices" and "people in my house." (Id.). She explained that she can hear "things being moved around" and "dishes being put in the sink" or the "washing ...