United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, at Ashland
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
EDWARD B. ATKINS, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Margaret Rosemary Wright, brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. 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. 14]. For the reasons set forth herein, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 15] shall be denied, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 16] shall be granted, and Judgment shall be entered affirming the final decision of the Commissioner.
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND & PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff alleges that she has been unable to work since June 30, 2011 due to back problems, neuropathy, blood clots in her legs, arthritis, and anxiety. [Tr. at 111]. Due to those medical issues, she filed an application for SSI benefits on October 25, 2011. [Tr. at 176-81]. The Social Security Administration denied her application [Tr. at 111-14] and her request for reconsideration [Tr. at 121-23]. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). [Tr. at 124]. Subsequently, she testified at a hearing held on March 7, 2013 before ALJ Jerry Meade. [Tr. at 237]. At the hearing, Plaintiff was represented by counsel, Grover Arnett. [Tr. at 237]. During the hearing, the ALJ also heard testimony from a vocational expert ("VE"), Anthony Michael. [Tr. at 237]. After the hearing, the ALJ ruled against Plaintiff in a written decision dated March 28, 2013. [Tr. at 37-50]. Following the adverse decision of the ALJ, Plaintiff properly exhausted her administrative remedies by appealing to the Social Security Appeals Council, which twice denied her requests for review. [Tr. at 1-6]. Plaintiff filed her complaint in this Court on February 9, 2014. [R. 1].
The Court notes that, as required by the regulations, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's claim in accordance with the Social Security Administration's five-step sequential evaluation process. See Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003); C.F.R. § 404.1520; [Tr. at 37-50]. First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 25, 2011. [Tr. at 39]. Second, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "degenerative disc disease status-post lumbar surgery (twice); left heel tendonitis and bursitis; pain disorder; major depressive disorder; and generalized anxiety disorder." [Tr. at 39]. Third, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not "have an impairment or combination of impairments" that met or medically equaled one of the Commissioner's listed impairments. [Tr. at 41]. Fourth, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") allowed her to perform a reduced range of light work, although she could not return to any of her past relevant work. [Tr. at 42-48]. In determining Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ gave great weight to the opinion of a state-agency consultant, Dr. Robert Schilling. [Tr. at 48]. Fifth, and finally, the ALJ concluded that, given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, she could perform certain light-work jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. [Tr. at 49].
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
A reviewing court must uphold the findings of the ALJ if they are supported by substantial evidence. See Kirk v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6th Cir. 1981); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed even if the Court would decide the case differently and even if the claimant's position is also supported by substantial evidence. E.g., Smith v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 482 F.3d 873, 876 (6th Cir. 2007).
Plaintiff raises just one issue in her motion for summary judgment. She claims that the ALJ improperly relied on a hypothetical to the VE that did not accurately describe her. Plaintiff contends that this resulted in VE testimony that could not serve as substantial evidence to support the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff could perform other work. See Smith v. Halter, 307 F.3d 377, 378 (6th Cir. 2001) (citing Varley v. Sec'y of HHS, 820 F.2d 777, 779 (6th Cir. 1987)) ("A vocational expert's testimony concerning the availability of suitable work may constitute substantial evidence [only] where the testimony is elicited in response to a hypothetical question that accurately sets forth the plaintiff's physical and mental impairments."); [R. 15-1 at 14]. Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that, despite giving great weight to state-agency reviewing psychologist Schilling's opinion, the ALJ did not adopt all the restrictions assessed by Schilling.
In particular, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ improperly disregarded a finding made by Schilling in Section I of the Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment ("MRFC"). Plaintiff contends that Schilling found moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace and the ability to complete a normal workday or workweek without interruptions form psychologically-based symptoms but the ALJ improperly failed to include them in his hypothetical.
However, POMS states that Section I "is merely a worksheet to aid in deciding the presence and degree of functional limitations and the adequacy of documentation and does not constitute an RFC assessment." POMS DI 24510.060. Those courts that have addressed the issue have agreed that Section I is merely a worksheet for the evaluator and does not constitute the evaluator's actual RFC assessment. See, e.g., Griffith v. Colvin, No. 6:13-cv-23-DCR, 2013 WL 5536476, at *6 (E.D. Ky. Oct. 7, 2013) ("[S]ection I of the POMS form may be assigned little or no weight because it is not part of the final RFC finding in section III of POMS"); Velez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 1:09 CV 0715, 2010 WL 1487599, at *6 (N.D. Ohio Mar. 26, 2010) ("In general... the administrative law judge is not required to include the findings in Section I in formulating residual functional capacity."); see also Smith v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 632, 635-37 (3rd Cir. 2010). Thus, it is not error for an ALJ to fail to incorporate Section I findings in a hypothetical to a VE. See Griffith, 2013 WL 5536476, at *6.
Moreover, the ALJ did not altogether disregard Schilling's findings but, rather, relied on Schilling's findings in Section III of the MRFC instead of those in Section I. Section III consists of an evaluator's narrative statement of a claimant's mental capacity rather than answers to predetermined questions. See POMS DI 24510.065 (explaining that, in section III, the evaluator must translate his "preliminary conclusions" (section I's ratings) into a narrative format that usefully describes the claimant's ultimate RFC).
As relevant here, Schilling's narrative conclusion in Section III found that although Plaintiff would have some difficulties working within a schedule and at a consistent pace, she could work in a stable environment. [Tr. at 105]. Further, Schilling determined that Plaintiff could carry out simple directions, maintain regular attendance, and sustain a work routine while at times experiencing some difficulties accepting criticism and adapting to changes in the work setting. [Tr. at 105]. Schilling also found that Plaintiff's difficulties with social interaction could be addressed by limiting her exposure to the general public during episodes of exacerbated symptoms. [Tr. at 105]. These findings ...