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Birch v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

June 4, 2014

CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


DAVID L. BUNNING, District Judge.


This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff and Defendant's cross-motions for summary judgment (Docs. # 15 & 17). For the reasons stated below, the Court will uphold the Commissioner's decision.


Plaintiff Charles Lewis Birch, a resident of Winchester, KY, has suffered since birth from symptoms related to congenital anal atresia. Among those symptoms is episodic fecal incontinence, which Plaintiff managed successfully for much of his life. He was last employed at S&S Tire in Lexington, KY, where he loaded and unloaded tires and maintained the company's warehouse, (Doc. # 7-1, at 41), but hasn't worked since an October 2011 heart attack left him fatigued, depressed, and with significantly worsened fecal incontinence. (Doc. # 7-1, at 33). Since his heart attack, Plaintiff alleges that he suffers from multiple onsets per day of fecal incontinence. ( Id. ) This often prevents him from leaving the house.

On November 10, 2011, Plaintiff applied for social security disability, disability insurance, and supplemental security benefits under the Federal Social Security Act. He alleged disability based on the following conditions: heart attack, coronary artery disease, and low injection fraction. (Doc. # 7-1, at 49). That application was denied initially on April 30, 2012, and upon reconsideration on July 11, 2012. Plaintiff then appeared before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Karen R. Jackson on March 14, 2013, where he was represented by counsel.

Despite Plaintiff's condition, the ALJ found, in a March 29, 2013 written opinion that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. His claims of fecal incontinence did not constitute a "severe" impairment as defined under agency regulations, and although the ALJ found that some of his impairments were severe-coronary artery disease, among others-these impairments did not preclude Plaintiff from performing some type of work. (Doc. # 7-1, at 15 & 20-21). After Plaintiff's agency appeals were rebuffed, he brought the present action in federal court on June 5, 2013. (Doc. # 1).

Plaintiff initially sought a remand of the action, on the theory that new medical evidence required that the ALJ revisit his determination. (Doc. # 10). The Court rejected that argument in a short order issued on February 12, 2014. (Doc. # 14). In his present motion, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in finding that his fecal incontinence does not qualify as a severe impairment. (Doc. # 15-1, at 1). Further, he repackages his argument that new medical evidence necessitates a remand to the agency. ( Id. at 8).


A. Standard of Review

The Court's review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision followed proper legal standards and whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). Under this deferential standard, courts will not substitute their judgment for that of the ALJ. Id. The Court does not resolve evidentiary conflicts or decide questions of credibility. Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). Interpretations of statutes and agency regulations are questions of law, which the Court will review de novo. Smith v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 482 F.3d 873, 876 (6th Cir. 2007).

B. The five-step process

In deciding whether to award disability benefits, the ALJ must proceed through a five-step analysis. Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001). At step one, the ALJ determines whether the applicant is gainfully employed. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). At step two, the issue is whether the applicant suffers from severe physical or mental impairments. Id. at § 1520(c). Assuming the answer is yes, the ALJ then considers whether the applicant's impairments are among those listed in Social Security regulations, such that the applicant is presumed disabled. Id. at § 1520(d).

If a claimant's impairments fail to qualify as a listed impairment under agency regulations, the ALJ must then prepare a residual functional capacity (RFC). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). This RFC is used at both steps four and five of the decision making process. Id. at § 1520(a)(4). At step four, the ALJ decides, in light of the RFC, whether the claimant can perform any past relevant work. Id. at § 1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, then the claimant is not eligible for benefits. Id. If not, the ALJ then considers alternative work the claimant could do, and evaluates whether enough of that work exists in the national economy to preclude an award of disability benefits. ...

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