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Douglas v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, Ashland

January 29, 2015

BRENDA ANN DOUGLAS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

EDWARD B. ATKINS, Magistrate Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Brenda Ann Douglas, brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits. [R. 14-1 at 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. [R. 13]. For the reasons set forth herein, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 14] shall be denied, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 15] shall be granted, and Judgment shall be entered affirming the final decision of the Commissioner.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND & PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff was born in 1966 [Tr. 160] and was forty-six years old on the date of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision [Tr. 30]. She completed two years of college and has employment experience as a teacher's aide [Tr. 32].

In her Disability Report, Form SSA-3368, Plaintiff claimed her work ability was limited due to "[h]earing problems, eyesight, feet problems, [and] Turner's Syndrome." [Tr. 184]. Thus, Plaintiff filed for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on December 20, 2010. [Tr. 181]. The Social Security Administration denied her claims initially [Tr. 95-99] and upon reconsideration [Tr. 100-05]. After denial of her claims, she requested a hearing in front of an ALJ. [Tr. 106-07]. Subsequently, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing held on April 5, 2012 before ALJ Andrew J. Chwalibog. [Tr. 26]. At the hearing, she was represented by counsel, William Arnett. [Tr. 26]. During the hearing, the ALJ also heard testimony from Gina Baldwin, a vocational expert. [Tr. 27].

The ALJ ruled against Plaintiff in a written decision dated May 24, 2012. [Tr. 8]. In his decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of "moderate bilateral sensorineural hearing loss and decreased visual acuity (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c))." [Tr. 13]. Despite these conditions, the ALJ determined that "[t]he claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526. 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926)." [Tr. 15]. Continuing with his evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform less than a full range of light work, and he set forth her specific limitations in his opinion. [Tr. 15]. Further, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work. [Tr. 18]. However, the ALJ determined that "there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the [Plaintiff] can perform." [Tr. 19]. Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a "disability" as defined by the Social Security Act. [Tr. 19]. Following the adverse decision of the ALJ, Plaintiff properly exhausted her administrative remedies by appealing to the Social Security Appeals Council, which denied her request for review. [Tr. 1].

On September 14, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. [R. 1]. In her Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 14], Plaintiff sets forth multiple arguments for reversal of the ALJ's opinion. Defendant responds that the ALJ's opinion should be affirmed, as it is supported by substantial evidence. [R. 15]. The case is now ripe for review.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A reviewing court must uphold the findings of the ALJ if they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)(2006); see also Kirk v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6th Cir. 1981). The Sixth Circuit has held that "substantial evidence exists when a reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate to support a conclusion." Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387 (6th Cir. 2004) (internal citations and quotation marks 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).

The limited nature of substantial evidence review prevents the reviewing court from substituting its judgment for that of the ALJ. Rather, so long as substantial evidence exists, the reviewing court should affirm the ALJ's decision "even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion." Longworth v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Sixth Circuit precedent suggests that a finding of "no substantial evidence" would be appropriate in situations where the ALJ ignores uncontested, compelling evidence for one side, makes no express findings on witness credibility and makes a ruling based on facts with "little if any evidentiary value." Noe v. Weinberger, 512 F.2d 588 (6th Cir. 1975); see also Glass v. Sec'y of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 517 F.2d 224 (6th Cir. 1975). Otherwise, if there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision, "it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently." Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994).

IV. ANALYSIS

The Commissioner's regulations provide a sequential, five-step process for the evaluation of disabilities. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). First, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity; if so, she is not disabled. Id . § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). Second, if claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must determine whether she has a severe impairment; if not, she is not disabled. Id . § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Third, if claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner must compare it to those in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; if the severe impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, claimant is presumed disabled. Id . § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). Fourth, if claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the Commissioner must determine whether claimant's impairment prevents her from doing past relevant work; if not, she is not disabled. Id . § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). Fifth, if claimant's impairment prevents her from doing past relevant work, the Commissioner must determine whether other work exists in the national economy that accommodates her RFC and vocational factors (age, education, skills, etc.); if so, she is not disabled. Id . § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

At step one of this process, there is no dispute between the parties that Plaintiff has not participated in "substantial gainful activity" since December 10, 2010, her stated disability onset date. However, Plaintiff alleges three different errors by the ALJ, each of which pertain to ...


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