United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington
CHARLES W. BAKER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
ROBERT E. WIER, Magistrate Judge.
The Court considers cross-motions for summary judgment under the District's standard briefing protocol. Plaintiff/Claimant, Charles W. Baker, by counsel, appeals the Commissioner's denial of SSI benefits. The overall issue is whether substantial evidence supported the ALJ's factual decisions, as required by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court GRANTS IN PART Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (DE #20). The Court GRANTS the motion insofar as the ALJ did not adequately justify his treatment of Dr. Abadilla or properly phrase his hypothetical to the VE, REVERSES the decision of the Commissioner, and REMANDS the case for proceedings consistent with the opinion herein. The Court DENIES the balance of the motion. The Court thus GRANTS IN PART Defendant's motion for summary judgment (DE #21). As discussed, the Court partially affirms the Commissioner's determinations as properly supported and legally appropriate.
I. Relevant Facts and Procedural Overview
Charles Baker filed an application for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits on December 9, 2010. In the application, Baker alleged a disability beginning on July 13, 2006. The Social Security Administration denied the claim on March 3, 2011, DE #16-4 at 122, and that agency again denied the claim on Baker's request for reconsideration. Id. at 129. Baker then requested a hearing pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.1429 et seq., and Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Greg Holsclaw conducted a video hearing on August 17, 2012. DE #16-3 (Hrg. Tr.) at 29-67. Baker testified at the hearing, in addition to Robert Piper, an independent vocational expert (VE). Following the hearing, the ALJ denied Baker's claim for benefits.
In evaluating Baker's disability claim, the ALJ conducted the recognized five-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The ALJ first determined that Baker had not engaged in substantial gainful activity, a defined term, since December 9, 2010, the application date. DE #1-1 (Notice of Decision) at 6. Next, the ALJ found that Baker presented 7 severe impairments: (1) adjustment disorder; (2) peripheral vascular disease; (3) history with mesh placement; (4) osteoarthritis of the shoulders, knees, and elbow with multiple knee surgeries; (5) degenerative disc disease of cervical and lumbar spine; (6) diabetes mellitus with neuropathy; and (7) depression. Id. In the third step, the ALJ determined that Baker's severe impairments were not "attended with the specific clinical signs and diagnostic findings required to meet or equal the requirements set forth in the Listing of Impairments." Id. at 7. In considering Baker's residual functional capacity (RFC) (step 4), the ALJ concluded that Baker had the residual functional capacity "to perform less than the full range of light work" and made specific findings as to Baker's RFC. Id. at 8-12. Finally, the ALJ found that, in light of Baker's "age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Baker] can perform." Id. at 13. The ALJ thus concluded that Baker had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, and denied the application. Id. at 14.
Baker, by counsel, timely filed for review with the Appeals Council, which denied relief. DE #16-3 (Admin Tr.) at 1-5 (notice from Appeals Council denying request for review). Baker subsequently filed the instant action for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Baker moves for summary judgment on three enumerated grounds: (1) the ALJ relied improperly on Dr. Swan, (2) the ALJ improperly failed to credit Baker's treating physician's RFC, and (3) the ALJ's hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert failed to include all of Baker's impairments. DE ##20, 20-1 (Motion), (Memorandum). The Commissioner filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. The motions stand ripe and ready for review.
II. Standard of Review
Judicial review pursuant to § 405(g) is narrow. The Court confines itself to determining whether substantial evidence supported the ALJ's factual rulings and whether the Secretary properly applied the relevant legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Brainard v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 889 F.2d 679 (6th Cir. 1989) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427 (1971)). Per the Social Security Act's express terms, the Commissioner's findings are conclusive as to any fact supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Heston, 245 F.3d at 534 (quoting Perales, 91 S.Ct. at 1427); see also Osborne v. Colvin, No. 0:13-CV-174-EBA, 2014 WL 2506459, at *3 (E.D. Ky. June 3, 2014) (applying standard).
Given the limited nature of substantial evidence review, the Court does not try the case de novo, make credibility determinations, or resolve conflicts in the evidence. Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). Indeed, if substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the reviewing court must affirm the ALJ "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) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The deferential standard creates for the Commissioner a "zone of choice, " which, assuming adequately supportive evidence, is immune from Court interference. Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986)).
Baker raises three distinct issues in an effort to impeach the ALJ's determination. He claims improper reliance on a state examiner, improper failure to credit his treating doctor's assessment, and improper VE hypothetical formulation. The Court agrees in part with Barker's arguments.
1. The ALJ did not err by relying on Dr. David Swan, a state agency non-examiner.
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in crediting the opinions of Dr. David Swan, a state agency non-examining physician. DE #20-1 (Memorandum) at 10-12. Specifically, Baker challenges Dr. Swan's qualification to evaluate Plaintiff's disability in the field of orthopedics based on Dr. Swan's alleged board certification in obstetrics and gynecology. Additionally, Baker questions Dr. Swan's truthfulness and veracity. Id. at 11. In support of his argument, Baker tenders an unauthenticated copy of Sneed v. Stovall, No. W2003-00779-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 1, 2004). DE #20-2 (Opinion).
Defendant responds that a physician's specialty is only one of the relevant factors the ALJ considers when weighing medical opinions. DE #21 (Response) at 3. Additionally, the Commissioner defends the ALJ's decision to consider Dr. Swan's opinion "because it is consistent with the record as a whole[.]" Id. at 4. Per Defendant, the Court should disregard the Tennessee Court of Appeals decision tendered by Plaintiff because the opinion is "extra-record evidence, " and thus outside the scope of judicial review. Finally, ...