United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
GREGORY F. VAN TATENHOVE, District Judge.
Plaintiff John Shell 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 denying Shell's application for disability insurance benefits (DIB). The Court, having reviewed the record and for the reasons set forth herein, will DENY Shell's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 12] and GRANT that of the Commissioner [R. 13].
Shell protectively filed an application for DIB on December 20, 2010, prior to his date last insured of December 31, 2010. [Transcript (Tr.) 146-47]. He alleges a disability beginning on January 24, 2005 due to Bipolar Disorder, attention deficit disorder (ADD), back injury, and knee injury. [Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J., R. 12-2 at 3]. Shell's application was denied initially [Tr. 73, 75] and upon reconsideration [Tr. 86, 88]. Subsequently, at Shell's request, an administrative hearing was conducted before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Anne Shaughnessy on May 14, 2012. [Tr. 24-47]. During the hearing, ALJ Shaughnessy heard testimony from Shell and vocational expert (VE) Mark A. Pinti. [Tr. 3-40, 40-45]. Shell, who was 60 years old at the time of the hearing, has a college education and has past work experience as a pharmacist. [Tr. 29, 161]. The VE testified that Shell could not perform his job as a pharmacist, but found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Shell could perform; the ALJ accepted that testimony. [Tr. 40-43].
Of particular import in this case, Shell previously applied for DIB on July 26, 2007, alleging a disability beginning on January 24, 2005, the same beginning date as alleged in the present case. [Tr. 10; 48]. That application was denied at the initial and reconsideration levels, and after a hearing, it was ultimately denied by Administrative Law Judge John Prince in a decision dated May 17, 2010. [Tr. 48]. ALJ Prince adjudicated Shell's disability claim for the period from January 24, 2005 through May 17, 2010, and found that Shell was not disabled. [Tr. 48]. The Appeals Council subsequently declined review of ALJ Prince's decision, and Shell did not appeal. [Tr. 10].
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). 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 One, ALJ Shaughnessy found that Shell has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 24, 2005, the alleged onset date, through his date last insured of December 31, 2010. [Tr. 14]. At Step Two, the ALJ found that Shell's ADD, Bipolar I disorder, back condition (disc space narrowing at L5-S1), and mild degenerative left knee condition constituted severe impairments. [ Id. ] At Step Three, the ALJ found that Shell's impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix I. [Tr. 14].
At Step Four, the ALJ assigned Shell a residual functional capacity (RFC) with certain modifications, stating:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) except for the following limitations. He can have only occasional contact with the public, supervisors, and co-workers. He has the ability to perform simple, detailed, and complex work. The work should involve the performance of routine tasks on a daily basis without constant changes in the work setting. The claimant has a mild impairment of the ability to engage in production-oriented tasks. He is not able to work as a member of a close-knit team. The work should have only occasional crawling.
[Tr. 16]. This RFC was adopted verbatim from the 2010 ALJ decision, since ALJ Shaughnessy determined that that prior decision and its RFC determination were binding upon her adjudication. [ See Tr. 11-12, 17-18]. Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined Shell could not perform any past relevant work. [Tr. 18]. However, at Step Five, ALJ Shaughnessy relied on the testimony of the VE to find that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Shell could perform. [ Id. ] Accordingly, on July 20, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Shell was not disabled and was therefore ineligible for DIB. [Tr. 19]. The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on September 19, 2013, [Tr. 1-3], and Shell now seeks judicial review in this Court.
This Court's review is limited to whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Wright v. Massanari, 321 F.3d 611, 614 (6th Cir. 2003); Shelman v. Heckler, 821 F.2d 316, 319-20 (6th Cir. 1987). "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 ) (internal quotation marks 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.
Shell's two main arguments center around ALJ Shaughnessy's RFC determination. First, Shell argues that the ALJ's RFC determination was not supported by substantial evidence in the record and that the ALJ erred by adopting the RFC from the 2010 ALJ decision. He also contends that the ALJ's ...