United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
HANLY A. INGRAM, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Jamie Ealy, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying Plaintiff's application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. Having reviewed the record and for the reasons set forth herein, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (D.E. 21) is denied and the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (D.E. 22) is granted.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on December 13, 2010, alleging a disability beginning on August 15, 2010. D.E. 16-4 at 57. The claim was denied initially on March 28, 2011, and upon reconsideration on August 18, 2011. D.E. 16-4 at 9-12 and 15-17. At Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was conducted before Administrative Law Judge Bonnie Kittinger (ALJ) on August 21, 2012. D.E. 16-3 at 31-75. During the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and impartial vocational expert James Miller (VE). Id. Plaintiff was thirty-one years old on the alleged onset date, and has past relevant work experience as a telemetry technician, a billing clerk, a cashier, and a certified nursing assistant. D.E. 16-3 at 22. At the time of the hearing, she was not working, had graduated high school, and completed two years of college. Id. at 37-38. The VE testified that Plaintiff could no longer perform her prior work, but that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, and the ALJ accepted that testimony. Id. at 22-23.
In evaluating a claim of disability, an ALJ conducts a five-step analysis. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. First, if a claimant is working at a substantial gainful activity, she 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 her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, then she 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, she is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Before the fourth step is conducted, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity, which calculates her ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from her impairments. Fourth, if a claimant's impairments do not prevent her from doing past relevant work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Fifth, if a claimant's impairments (considering her residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work) prevent her from doing other work that exists in the national economy, then she is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).
In this case, at Step 1, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 15, 2010, the alleged onset date. D.E. 16-3 at 14. At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease, anxiety, and depression[.]" Id. The ALJ found that the record did not substantiate the Plaintiff's claims of "allegedly severe heart problems; fibromyalgia; lupus; rheumatoid arthritis; psoriatic arthritis; hypertension; visual impairment; or thyroid condition." Id. At Step 3, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix I. Id at 16. The ALJ found Plaintiff to have the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in CFR 404.1576(b), with certain limitaitons. Id. at 18. At Step 4, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. Id. at 22. However, at Step 5 the ALJ relied on the testimony of the VE to find that, based on Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. Id. at 23. The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on January 28, 2014 ( Id. at 1), and Plaintiff now seeks judicial review in this Court.
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. The ALJ did not err in giving little weight to the opinion of Dr. Lynch
Plaintiff's first argument on appeal is that the ALJ erred by assigning little weight to the opinion of Dr. Greg Lynch, Ph.D. D.E. 21-1 at 7. Plaintiff asserts that the report and findings from Dr. Lynch (D.E. 17-2 at 81-86) were disregarded by the ALJ improperly and thereby the ALJ erred in failing to incorporate these restrictions into the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity.
In social security disability cases, medical evidence may come from treating sources, non-treating sources, and non-examining sources. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1502. A treating source is the claimant's "own physician, psychologist, or other acceptable medical source who provides [claimant], or has provided [claimant], with medical treatment or evaluation and who has, or has had, an ongoing treatment relationship with [claimant]." Id. A non-treating source has examined the claimant but does not have an ongoing treatment relationship with him or her, while a non-examining source is an acceptable medical source that has not examined the claimant but provided medical or other opinion evidence in the case. Id.
ALJs must give a treating source's opinion controlling weight "if he finds the opinion well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques' and not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record.'" Wilson v. Comm'r, 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004) ( quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)). However, one meeting is insufficient to establish an ongoing treatment relationship. See Smith v. Comm'r, 482 F.3d 873, 876 (6th Cir. 2007) (holding that the opinion of a doctor, who examined claimant only once and wrote a single "physical capacity evaluation, " was not entitled to controlling weight).
The regulations require that, if the source of the opinion is non-treating, the following factors must be considered in order to determine how much weight to give the opinion: (1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of the examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (3) supportability of the opinion; (4) consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole; (5) the specialization of the treating source; and (6) other factors brought to the ALJ's attention by the parties. 20 C.F.R. 404.1527(c)(1)-(6). The regulations further state that although the ALJ uses medical sources, both treating and non-treating, on issues such as the claimant's residual functional capacity, the final responsibility in deciding these issues is reserved to the Commissioner. 20. C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2); See also Warner v. Com'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 391 (6th Cir. 2004) ("The determination of disability is ultimately the prerogative of the Commissioner, not the treating physician."). Finally, the ALJ is required to "explain in the decision the weight given to the opinions of a State agency ...