United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
EDWARD B. ATKINS, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Valerie Elaine Mains, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to challenge the Defendant Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). [Record No. 13-1]. Upon consent of the parties, this matter has been referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of final judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73. [Record No. 19]. Now ripe for decision on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, and for the reasons set forth herein, the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [Record No. 13] shall be denied, the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Record No. 20] shall be granted, and Judgment will be entered affirming the Commissioner's final decision.
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND & PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On March 31, 2010, the Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income. [Tr. 132-135]. In this application, the Plaintiff alleged disability since March 29, 2010. Id . In her Disability Report, Form SSA-3368, the Plaintiff claimed her work ability was limited due to rheumatoid arthritis, migraines and bursitis. [Tr. 161-167]. Her claim was denied initially [Tr. 83-86], and on reconsideration [Tr. 69]. After denial of her claim, Plaintiff requested a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [Tr. 91].
On July 17, 2012, a hearing was held before ALJ Greg Holsclaw. [Tr. 27-67]. The Plaintiff testified at the hearing, and was represented by Terry Minser. [Tr. 27-67]. The ALJ also heard testimony from vocational expert Dr. Jackie Rogers. [Tr. 27-67]. ALJ Holsclaw denied Plaintiff's claim for benefits in a written decision dated August 31, 2012. [Tr. 11-20]. In evaluating Plaintiff's claim, the ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation process to determine that she was not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 416.920. At the first step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date of her application for benefits. [Tr. 13]. Next, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine; osteoarthritis; headaches; depression; and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). [Tr. 13]. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [Tr. 13-14].
Before proceeding to the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments left her with the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work as defined by the Regulations. [Tr. 14-15]. Specifically, the ALJ described Plaintiff's exertional and non-exertional limitations:
No lifting/carrying more than ten pounds occasionally; no standing/walking more than two hours out of an eight hour day and for no more than 45 minutes at one time; can perform unlimited pushing/pulling up to the exertional limitations; no more than frequent balancing; no more than occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, or climbing ramps or stairs; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no work around dangerous moving machinery or unprotected heights; no work around concentrated exposure to vibration; no driving or operating heaving machinery; no more than simple routine work; no more than occasional, if any, work that requires independent decision making, use of judgment or work outside a set schedule; and no more than occasional, if any, changes in the workplace setting.
The fourth step of the analysis is to determine whether the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity would allow her to perform the requirements of her past relevant work. The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work, See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565, 416.965. [Tr. 19]. At the fifth and final step, relying on the testimony of the Vocational Expert ("VE") and taking into consideration Plaintiff's age, educational background, past relevant work experience, and residual functional capacity, the ALJ must determine whether the Plaintiff is capable of making a successful adjustment to work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.159(a); 416.969(a). Based on the testimony of the Vocational Expert, the ALJ held that, "[c]onsidering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the claimant is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy...." [Tr. 19]. Based on these findings, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff was not under a "disability" as defined by the Social Security Act, See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g). [Tr. 20].
Following the ALJ's adverse decision, the Plaintiff properly exhausted her administrative remedies by appealing to the Social Security Appeals Council. [Tr. 6-7]. On October 31, 2013, the Council denied Mains' request for review. [Tr. 1-5]. On December 19, 2013, Plaintiff initiated the present action by filing her Complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. [Record No. 1]. In her Motion for Summary Judgment, the Plaintiff asserts two grounds for relief: (1) that the ALJ's step three finding that Mains' spinal impairments did not rise to the level of a disability under the regulations was unsupported by substantial evidence; and (2) that the ALJ failed to properly apply the treating physician rule set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527 when he discounted the opinion of treating physician Dr. Arnold. [Record No. 13-1]. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ's decision should be affirmed, as he applied the proper standards and supported his decision with substantial evidence. [Record No. 20]. Following briefing, this matter was referred to the undersigned, upon consent of the parties for all proceedings. [Record No. 19].
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a reviewing court "must affirm the Commissioner's conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record." Longworth v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. , 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). The scope of judicial review is limited to the record itself, and the reviewing court "may not try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in evidence, nor decide questions of credibility." Hogg v. Sullivan , 987 F.2d 328, 331 (6th Cir. 1993) (citations omitted).
A. The ALJ's finding that Mains' spinal impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment under Listing 1.04 was ...