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Buell v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London

December 18, 2014

AARON ROSS BUELL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

HANLY A. INGRAM, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff, Aaron Ross Buell, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) to obtain judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The parties each filed a notice of consent to the referral of this matter to a magistrate judge. D.E. 11; 12. Accordingly, this matter was referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of a final judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. D.E. 13. The Court, having reviewed the record and for the reasons stated herein, will deny Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (D.E. 18) and grant the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (D.E. 19).

I. BACKGROUND

Buell filed an application for SSI on February 4, 2011. D.E. 8 at 1. He alleges disability beginning on January 27, 2011 (D.E. 18-1 at 1), due to problems with anxiety, learning disabilities, and cancer (D.E. 8-1 at 37). Buell's claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id. at 17. Subsequently, at Buell's request, an administrative hearing was conducted before Administrative Law Judge Tommye C. Mangus ("ALJ") on August 30, 2012. Id. During the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Buell and vocational expert Julian M. Nadolsky ("VE"). Id. Buell, who was twenty-three years old as of the alleged onset date, has a high school education. Id. at 25. Although Buell has no past relevant work experience, the VE testified that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Buell could perform, and the ALJ accepted that testimony. Id. at 25-26.

In evaluating a claim of disability, an ALJ conducts a five-step sequential analysis. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.[1] First, if a claimant is working at a substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, if a claimant does not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limit his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, then he does not have a severe impairment and is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Third, if a claimant's impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, he is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If a claimant is not found disabled at step 3, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity, which is her ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Fourth, if a claimant's impairments do not prevent him from doing past relevant work (given the ALJ's assessment of his residual functional capacity), he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Fifth, if a claimant's impairments (considering his residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work) do not prevent him from doing other work that exists in the national economy, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

In this case, at Step 1, the ALJ found that Buell has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 4, 2011, the date the application was protectively filed. D.E. 8-1 at 19. At Step 2, the ALJ found that Buell has the following severe impairments: "borderline intellectual functioning, learning disability, a history of skin cancer, and anxiety." Id. At Step 3, the ALJ found that Buell's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 21. At Step 4, the ALJ determined that Buell:

[H]as the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: he can understand and remember simple instructions requiring brief initial learning periods; maintain attention and concentration for simple instructions requiring little independent judgment and involving minimal variations; tolerate occasional, casual contact with others in a task-focused work setting; and adapt to work place changes that are occasional and gradually introduced.

Id. at 23. The ALJ found that Buell has no past relevant work. Id. at 25. At step 5, the ALJ relied on the testimony of VE to find that, based on Buell's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Buell could perform. Id. at 25-26. Accordingly, on September 28, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Buell was not disabled, and therefore, ineligible for SSI. The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on November 19, 2013 ( Id. at 5-8), and Buell now seeks judicial review in this Court.

II. DISCUSSION

Under the Social Security Act, a "disability" is defined as "the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity' because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment of at least one year's expected duration." Cruse v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 502 F.3d 532, 539 (6th Cir. 2007). Judicial review of the denial of a claim for Social Security benefits is limited to determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). "Substantial evidence" is "more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). The substantial evidence standard "presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which decision makers can go either way, without interference from the court." Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) ( en banc ) (quotes and citations omitted).

In determining the existence of substantial evidence, courts must examine the record as a whole. Id. (citing Kirk v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6th Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 957 (1983)). However, courts are not to conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in evidence, or make credibility determinations. Id. (citations omitted); see also Bradley v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 862 F.2d 1224, 1228 (6th Cir. 1988). Rather, if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently, and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion. See Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999); see also Casey v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 987 F.2d 1230, 1233 (6th Cir. 1993); Kinsella v. Schweiker, 708 F.2d 1058, 1059 (6th Cir. 1983); Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545.

A. Claim that the ALJ erred in failing to find that Buell meets the criteria of 12.05(c).

Buell's motion first argues that the ALJ erred in failing to find that his intellectual impairments satisfied the criteria of Listing 12.05(C). D.E. 18-1 at 6-8. By meeting all the criteria set forth in Listing 12.05(C), a claimant may demonstrate that he suffers from mental retardation under the Listing of Impairments, so as to qualify for benefits. In order to satisfy the requirements of Listing 12.05(C), a claimant must show:

(1) he experiences "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning with deficits in adaptive functioning that initially manifested during the developmental period" (i.e., the diagnostic description); (2) he has a "valid verbal, performance, or full scale IQ of 60 through 70"; and (3) he suffers from "a physical or other mental ...

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