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Vernon v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London

March 2, 2015

CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



The Plaintiff, Denise Rena Vernon, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying Vernon's application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI). The Court, having reviewed the record and for the reasons set forth herein, will deny Vernon's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 11] and grant the Commissioner's. [R. 14.]


Vernon filed applications for DIB and SSI on January 10, 2011. [Transcript (Tr.) 171-82.] She alleges a disability beginning on March 30, 2009, due to fibromyalgia, back pain, shortness of breath, organic mental disorder, and carpal tunnel syndrome. [Tr. 27.] Her date last insured is June 30, 2013. [Tr. 25.] Vernon's applications were denied initially in May 2011, and upon reconsideration in September 2011. [Tr. 25.] Subsequently, at Vernon's request, an administrative hearing was conducted before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) George Evans on June 11, 2012. [Tr. 40-62.] Vernon, who was thirty-six years old as of the alleged onset date, has a high school education and some college. [Tr. 32, 42.]. She has past relevant work as a paramedic and substitute cook, but the ALJ found that Vernon could no longer perform such work due to her impairments. [Tr. 32.]

In evaluating a claim of disability, an ALJ conducts a five-step analysis. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.[1] First, if a claimant is working at a substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b); 416.920(a)(4)(i). 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), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). 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), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). 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 is an assessment of one's ability to perform certain physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite any impairment experienced by the individual. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 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), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). 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), 416.920(a)(4)(v).

In this case, at Step 1, the ALJ found that Vernon has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 30, 2009, the alleged onset date. [Tr. 27.] At Step 2, the ALJ found that Vernon has an overall "severe" impairment based on the following combined impairments: fibromyalgia, lumbar degenerative disc disease, shortness of breath, organic mental disorder, and carpal tunnel syndrome right. [ Id. ] At Step 3, the ALJ found that Vernon's impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [Tr. 29.] The ALJ then considered the entire record and determined that Vernon possessed the residual functional capacity to perform "the full range of light unskilled work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)." [Tr. 30.] Based on the RFC, the ALJ found at Step 4 that Vernon is unable to perform any past relevant work. [Tr. 32.] At Step 5, the ALJ determined that application of the Medical-Vocational Rules directly supports a finding of "not disabled, " and determined that based on Vernon's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity in conjunction with the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, a significant number of jobs in the national economy exist that Vernon could perform. [Tr. 33.] Accordingly, on August 30, 2012, the ALJ found that Vernon was not "disabled" and therefore is ineligible for DIB and SSI. [Tr. 33]. The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision [Tr. 1], and Vernon 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); Longworth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005). 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. 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, courts are not to conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in evidence, or make credibility determinations. Ulman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012) (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. Ulman, 693 F.3d at 714 ; Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007).


Vernon's primary argument on appeal is that the ALJ's reliance on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines without testimony from a vocational expert was inappropriate. [R. 11 at 7-12.] Although her argument focuses on the fifth step of the sequential evaluation process, it is more appropriately considered as a challenge to Vernon's RFC - a challenge integrally related to Vernon's other arguments concerning how the ALJ determined her RFC. Thus, the Court will address Vernon's arguments by first examining whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding concerning Vernon's RFC.

An individual's RFC is an administrative determination about the person's maximum ability to perform work-related activities and reflects the most that the person can do in a workrelated setting despite his or her limitations. SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *5; 20 C.F.R. §404.1545(a)(1). This assessment "is based upon consideration of all relevant evidence in the case record, " including medical evidence as well as the individual's own statements of what he or she can do. SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *5; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). Given the role of the Court at this stage in the process, the key issue concerning Vernon's RFC is whether the ALJ's determination is supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). As noted above, this Court must give deference to the Commissioner's decision "[e]ven if this Court might have reached a contrary conclusion of fact... so long as [the decision] is supported by substantial evidence." Kyle v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 609 F.3d 847, 854-55 (6th Cir. 2010); Ulman, 693 F.3d at 714.

Here, the ALJ determined that despite Vernon's impairments, she has the ability to perform light, unskilled work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§404.1527 and 416.967(b). [Tr. 30, 32.] Light work is defined as "lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time" or "carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds, " and requires "a good deal of walking or standing, " or "involves sitting most of the time with some pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls." 20 C.F.R. §404.1567(b). In making that determination, the ALJ considered the extent to which Vernon's alleged symptoms were consistent with the objective medical evidence and the opinion evidence in the record. Specifically, the ALJ considered the longitudinal treatment record, the effectiveness of Vernon's treatment and medication, the opinion evidence of state agency physicians and psychological reviewers, and reports of consulting examiners. [Tr. 32.]

It is somewhat unclear from Vernon's brief what her exact criticism is of the ALJ's ultimate RFC finding. For instance, although Vernon asserts that she "is not able to work regularly, " she does not point to medical evidence in the record that demonstrates she is incapable of light work or that would support a finding of complete disability. When reformulating Vernon's arguments in light of the five-step sequential evaluation process, it appears that her primary challenges to the RFC determination are as follows: the ALJ did not adequately account for her ...

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