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Harlow v. Colvin

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

September 10, 2014

MICHAEL JON HARLOW, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

JOSEPH M. HOOD, Senior District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on cross motions for summary judgment. For the reasons discussed below, the motion of the Commissioner will be granted and the motion of Mr. Harlow will be denied.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on March 17, 2008, claiming that his disability began January 1, 1999. Tr. 208, 211, 240. His applications were denied. Tr. 113, 123, 127. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing on March 12, 2010, during which Plaintiff amended his onset of disability to March 17, 2008. Tr. 64. Plaintiff's applications were denied by the ALJ on May 12, 2010. Tr. 102-08.

The Appeals Council remanded the case, directing the ALJ to determine the status of Plaintiff's Title II claim and for additional administrative action. Tr. 92-98. Following a hearing on November 2, 2011, the ALJ dismissed the Title II DIB claim because the Plaintiff's alleged onset date occurred after his date last insured ("DIL") of March 31, 2002. Tr. 17, 32, 240. Regarding his SSI claim, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing light work and denied his application. Tr. 16-26. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Tr. 5-8. The case is now ripe for review.

At the time of the most recent ALJ decision, Plaintiff was thirty-eight years of age. Tr. 25-26, 208. He was twenty-five when he first alleged disability on January 1, 1999, claiming he could not work because of severe asthma, loss of potassium and magnesium, constant headaches, back problems, the inability to use his right hand, depression and an extreme nervous condition, chest pains, thyroid problems, nausea, diarrhea, gas and pain. Tr. 208, 245. On his revised date of disability, he was thirty-five. He graduated from high school in regular classes. Tr. 252. Plaintiff had prior work experience as an unskilled laborer. Tr. 55, 246.

Following hearings on March 12, 2010 and January 19, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his amended alleged onset of disability. Tr. 19, 32, 60. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of hypertension, hypomagnesemia with diarrhea, asthma, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, stiff right index finger, and anxiety disorder. Tr. 19. His impairments, however, either alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 19-21.

Despite Plaintiff's impairments, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retained sufficient residual functional capacity to perform light work with additional limitations such as no sitting, standing, or walking for more than thirty minutes at a time; shift positions at thirty minute intervals; occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; occasionally stoop; never crawl; fingering limited to frequent with the right upper extremity, but no fingering with the right index finger; ready access to a restroom facility; and limited to simple, repetitive tasks. Tr. 21-24. The ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 26, 56. Based upon the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform light work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy and in Kentucky such as hand packer, grader, and sorter. Tr. 25, 56-57. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time through the date of the decision. Tr. 26. It is from that decision that Plaintiff appeals.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Standard of Review

The ultimate burden of proving a disability is on the plaintiff. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a); Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 353 (6th Cir. 2001). Judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner is limited to determination of whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); White v. Commissioner of Social Security, 572 F.3d 272, 281 (6th Cir. 2009) ("The Commissioner's conclusions must be affirmed absent a determination that the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal standards or made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record."). Substantial evidence means such evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Kyle v. Commissioner of Social Security, 609 F.3d 847, 854 (6th Cir. 2010). In determining whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the Court may look to portions of the record not discussed or cited by the ALJ. Heston v. Commissioner of Social Security, 245 F.3d 528, 535 (6th Cir. 2001). "We must defer to an agency's decision even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion, so long as substantial evidence supports the conclusion reached by the ALJ.'" Foster, 279 F.3d at 353.

B. The Commissioner's Decision Is Supported By Substantial Evidence.

Plaintiff argues the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because it did not give sufficient weight to the opinion of his treating physician, Dr. Kassis, and gave too much weight to the opinions of consultative physicians. DE 17-1, pp. 18-20. Generally, a treating doctor's opinion is entitled to more weight, and good reasons must be given for discounting it. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); Gayheart v. Commissioner of Social Security, 710 F.3d 365, 376 (6th Cir. 2013). A treating physician's opinion is given controlling weight if the opinion is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques" and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record." 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2). A treating doctor's opinion may be discounted, however, when the doctor does not support the opinion with objective medical evidence or if the doctor's opinion is inconsistent with the record as a whole. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c); Bogle v. Sullivan, 998 F.2d 342, 347-48 (6th Cir. 1993).

Additionally, opinions on some issues, such as whether the claimant is "disabled" or "unable to work" are reserved for the Commissioner because they are administrative findings that are dispositive of a case. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d); Dunlap v. Commissioner of Social Security, 509 F.Appx. 472, 476 (6th Cir. 2012). Opinions on issues reserved for the Commissioner "even when offered by a treating source, ... can never be entitled to controlling weight or be given special significance." SSR 96-5p; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(3). Controlling weight to such opinions would "be an abdication of the Commissioner's statutory responsibility to determine whether an individual is disabled." SSR 96-5p. Doctors' opinions about what a claimant can still do or any restrictions are ...


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