United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
GREGORY F. VAN TATENHOVE, District Judge.
The Plaintiff, Roy Trimble, 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 Trimble's application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB). The Court, having reviewed the record and for the reasons set forth herein, will DENY Roy Trimble's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 9] and will GRANT the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. [R. 10.]
Roy Trimble filed an application for DIB on December 27, 2010. [Transcript (Tr.) 173-80.] He alleges a disability beginning on May 1, 2008, which was later amended to November 20, 2010, due to a variety of problems including migraine headaches, bipolar disorder, problems sleeping, depression, hypertension, anxiety, and obesity. [Tr. 209.] Trimble's application was denied initially on November 19, 2010 [Tr. 71-83] and again upon reconsideration on August 26, 2011 [Tr. 101-16.] An administrative hearing was conducted before Administrative Law Judge Jonathan Stanley (ALJ) on August 22, 2012. [Tr. 28-67.] During the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Trimble and vocational expert (VE) Laura Whitten. [Tr. 59-65.] Trimble, who was thirty-eight years old as of the alleged onset date, has a high-school education via general education diploma (GED). [Tr. 34.] Trimble's past relevant work includes working as a truck driver, construction worker, factory worker, machine operator, trash collector, forklift operator, security guard, and he has served in the National Guard. [Tr. 36-49, 217.] Although the VE testified that Trimble could no longer perform his past relevant work, she found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Trimble could perform, and the ALJ accepted that testimony. [Tr. 60-64, 21.]
In evaluating a claim of disability, an ALJ conducts a five-step analysis. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, if a claimant is performing 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" as defined by the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Third, if a claimant's impairments meet or equal one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, he is "disabled." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Before moving to the fourth step, the ALJ must use all the relevant evidence in the record to determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), which assesses an individual's ability to perform certain physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite any impairments experienced by the individual. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. Fourth, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work, and if a claimant's impairments do not prevent him from doing past relevant work, he is not "disabled." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Fifth, if a claimant's impairments (considering his RFC, age, education, and past work) prevent him from doing other work that exists in the national economy, then he is "disabled." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).
In this case, at Step 1, the ALJ found that Trimble has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 20, 2010, the alleged onset date. [Tr. 13.] At Step 2, the ALJ found that Trimble suffers from the following severe impairments: obesity; bipolar disorder, mixed without psychotic features; anxiety disorder. [Tr. 13.] At Step 3, the ALJ found that Trimble's impairments, whether considered alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [Tr. 15-16.] Before moving to Step 4, the ALJ considered the entire record and determined that Trimble possessed the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) except for certain non-exertional physical limitations and certain mental limitations which were described as follows:
The claimant can understand, remember, and carry out short, simple instructions and make simple work related judgments; can maintain adequate attention and concentration to perform simple tasks; can perform simple routine repetitive work; can manage and tolerate occasional changes in the work place setting; and the claimant can interact occasionally with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public.
[Tr. 16-17.] After explaining in significant detail how he determined Trimble's RFC, at Step 4 the ALJ found that based on this RFC, Trimble is unable to perform any past relevant work. [Tr. 16-21.] At Step 5, the burden shifted to the Commissioner to identify a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Trimble could perform, given his RFC, age, education, and experience. Jones, 336 F.3d at 474; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c). Here, the ALJ concluded that, based on Trimble's RFC and the VE's testimony, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers within the national economy that Trimble could perform. [Tr. 21-22.] Accordingly, on September 25, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Trimble was not disabled, and therefore ineligible for DIB. [Tr. 23.] The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on November 27, 2013 [Tr. at 1-5] and Trimble 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) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). The substantial evidence standard "presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which [administrative] decisionmakers can go either way, without interference by the courts." Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) ( en banc ) (quoting Baker v. Heckler, 730 F.2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir. 1984)).
In determining the existence of substantial evidence, courts must examine the record as a whole. Cutlip, 25 F.3d at 286 (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, a reviewing court may not conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or make credibility determinations. Ulman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012) (citation 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 Ulman, 693 F.3d at 714; Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007); Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999).
Trimble's motion for summary judgment primarily contends that the ALJ did not give appropriate weight to the opinion of Trimble's treating psychiatrist and did not include adequate reasoning for discounting the treating psychiatrist's opinions. [R. 9-1 at 1-2.] Under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2), a treating source's opinion on the issues of the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments is given controlling weight only if it is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques" and is "not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in [the] case record." Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)); see also Bogle v. Sullivan, 998 F.2d 342, 347-48 (6th Cir. 1993) ("This court has consistently stated that the Secretary is not bound by the treating physician's opinions, and that such opinions receive great weight only if they are supported by sufficient clinical findings and are consistent with the evidence."). As part of this so-called "treating physician rule, " an ALJ is required to give "good reasons" for not giving controlling weight to opinions from the treating physician in a disability determination. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). The ALJ must also explain what weight, if any, the treating physician's opinion warrants. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). In doing so, the ALJ should consider the following factors: "the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination, the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, supportability of the opinion, consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole, and specialization of the treating source." Cole v. Astrue, 661 F.3d 931, 937 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting Wilson, 378 F.3d at 544); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d). In considering these factors, however, the regulations do not require "an exhaustive factor-by-factor analysis." Francis v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 414 F.App'x 802, 804 (6th Cir. 2011) (finding no error even though the ALJ did not specifically consider two of the factors because the ALJ noted the inconsistency of the treating physician's opinion with objective medical evidence, plaintiff's activities, and assessments of other physicians).
In the case at hand, Trimble had previously filed for disability insurance benefits, and a previous ALJ denied that claim. Therefore, because the decision which Trimble challenges in the instant case occurred subsequently to a previous denial of his claim, ALJ Stanley properly noted that he was required to apply the principles explained by the Sixth Circuit in Drummond v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 126 F.3d 837, 840-43 (6th Cir. 1997). [ See Tr. 17.] The Drummond case requires that when an ALJ makes a final determination on an aspect of a disability claim, subsequent ALJ's are bound by the prior ALJ's determination unless there is a showing of new material evidence or changed circumstances. Drummond, 126 F.3d 842 ("Absent evidence of an improvement in a claimant's condition, a subsequent ALJ is bound by the findings of a previous ALJ."). To show such changed circumstances, "a comparison between circumstances existing at the time of the prior decision and circumstances existing at the time of the review is necessary." Kennedy v. Astrue, 247 F.App'x 761, 768 (6th Cir. 2007) (citing Drummond, 126 F.3d at 842). Thus, a prior ALJ's finding concerning a claimant's residual ...