United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
GREGORY F. VAN TATENHOVE, District Judge.
The plaintiff, Joann Farmer Morris, seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). For the reasons stated herein, the Court will GRANT in PART and DENY in PART both Morris' Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 12], and that of the Commissioner [R. 13]. Accordingly, this case will be REMANDED for further proceedings.
Morris filed her application for DIB on April 7, 2011, alleging a disability beginning on December 30, 2010. [Tr. 167-168.] She alleges that she is unable to maintain substantial gainful employment due to pain in her lower back, hip, leg, as well as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, a coronary condition, a tear in her right knee, breathing problems, a sleep disorder, and renal insufficiency. [Tr. 14.] Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. [Tr. 69-80, 82-94, 105-107.] Morris requested a hearing which was conducted over video-conference before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Don Paris, where the ALJ heard testimony from Morris, who was fifty-six years old as of the date of the ALJ's final decision. [Tr. 167.] Morris has an associate degree in business administration and medicine and has past relevant work as an admitting clerk, a medical assistant, receptionist, billing clerk, billing supervisor, referral clerk, billing secretary, and office manager. [Tr. 16-19.] Joyce Forrest, the vocational expert assigned to this case concluded that Morris could perform her past relevant work as an admitting clerk, billing clerk, referral clerk, and as an office manager, and the ALJ accepted that testimony. [Tr. 19.] On July 27, 2011, ALJ Paris issued a decision denying Morris benefits. [Tr. 12-19.]
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 clamant 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). The plaintiff has the ultimate burden of proving compliance with the first four steps. Kyle v. Comm'r Of Soc. Sec., 609 F.3d 847, 855 (6th Cir. 2010). 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, the ALJ determined, at Step 1, that Morris had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date. [Tr. 14.] At Step 2, the ALJ found that Morris had the following severe impairments: "obesity; generalized osteoarthritis and other unspecified Arthropathies; diabetic neuropathy; status post repair of meniscus tear to the right knee in 2004 and lumbar disc disease." [ Id. ] The ALJ found that Morris' other impairments were not severe but did still consider them in determining her RFC. [ Id. ] At Step 3, the ALJ concluded that Morris did not have an "impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526), " so the analysis continued. [Tr. 15.] The ALJ concluded that Morris had a residual functional capacity (RFC) to "perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a)." [ Id. ] ALJ Paris noted the following limitations:
The claimant has the residual functional capacity to occasionally lift and/or carry 10 pounds, frequently less than 10 pounds; stand and/or walk two hours in an eight hour workday; sit a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday; only occasional climbing, climbing ramps and stairs, never climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolds; no more than frequent balancing; only occasional stooping, kneeling and crouching and never crawling. She should avoid concentrated to extreme humidity, fumes, odors and gases or chemicals and full body vibration and avoid even moderate exposure to all hazards such as unprotected heights or dangerous machinery.
[ Id. ] Finally, the ALJ adopted the vocational expert's opinion that Morris could perform her past relevant work and, hence, is not disabled. [Tr. 18-19.] The Appeals Council found no reason to upset this decision [Tr. 1-6] and Morris 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).
Morris raises two issues on appeal to this Court. First, she argues that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Irwin. [R. 12-2 at 3-6.] Second, Morris submits that the ALJ failed to properly consider her own allegations of disabling pain. [ Id. at 6-7.]
Morris receives her medical care at the Family Medical Care Center where Dr. Irwin was her treating physician for about six years. [R. 54.] Morris also commonly received treatment from APRNs Stacey Smallwood and Suzann Smith. Morris argues that Dr. Irwin's opinions, contained in three separate RFC check-box questionnaires on Morris' arthritis [Tr. 376-380], diabetes [Tr. 381-385], and physical condition [Tr. 387-391], were not given the deference that they were entitled. [R. 12-2 at 3-6.] Morris first complains that the ALJ should have adopted Dr. Irwin's ...