United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, Covington
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
GREGORY F. VAN TATENHOVE, District Judge.
The plaintiff, Mary Evelyn Holleran, 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 deny Holleran's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 12], and grant that of the Commissioner [R. 13].
Holleran first filed for DIB on December 15, 2009. [Tr. 69.] She was denied and did not seek reconsideration of that decision. [Tr. 101; R. 12 at 2.] On November 1, 2010, Holleran filed a new application for DIB, alleging a disability beginning on October 31, 2009. [Tr. 176.] Holleran was 62 years old as of her alleged onset date. [ Id. ] Her second application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. [Tr. 82-83, 101-104, 109-112.] A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Ronald Kayser in Lexington, Kentucky, where the ALJ heard testimony from Holleran and from Joyce Forrest, a vocational expert. [Tr. 33-67.] Holleran has a Master's degree in English [Tr. 36, 43] and past relevant work as a pilot/escort driver, a dispatcher, and a teacher. [Tr. 25, 56-67.] The ALJ adopted Forrest's testimony and concluded that Holleran could perform her past relevant work. [Tr. 25.] On June 25, 2012, ALJ Kayser issued a decision denying Holleran benefits. [Tr. 20-27.]
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 Holleran had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date. [Tr. 22.] At Step 2, the ALJ found that Holleran had the following severe impairments: "degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine; status post bilateral total knee replacements; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; polysubstance abuse." [ Id. ] At Step 3, the ALJ concluded that Holleran 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 to the next step. [ Id. ] Next, the ALJ concluded that Holleran had a residual functional capacity (RFC) to "perform a range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b)" with the following limitations:
lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand and walk two hours of an eight hour day with a sit/stand option allowing her to get up and move around the work station every 35 minutes to an hour; sit six hours of an eight hour day; would have limits on pushing or pulling with the lower extremities; no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; only occasionally climbing ramps and stairs; occasionally balance, kneel, crouch, crawl, or stoop; and should have only limited exposure to temperature extremes, full body vibration, humidity, wetness, dusts, fumes, chemicals, dangerous machinery, and heights.
[Tr. 22-23.] At Step 4, the ALJ adopted the findings of the Vocational Expert and determined that Holleran is "capable of performing past relevant work as a pilot/escort driver; dispatcher; or at least 50% of teaching jobs." [Tr. 25.] At Step 5, the ALJ alternatively found that other jobs exist in the national economy that Holleran could perform outside of her past relevant work. [Tr. 25-26.] On September 12, 2013, the Appeals Council notified Holleran that it found no reason to upset this decision [Tr. 1-3] and Holleran 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).
Holleran raises five issues on appeal to this Court. First, she argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider and weigh the medical evidence. [R. 12 at 4-6.] Second, she argues that the ALJ improperly discounted her credibility by "failing to provide specific rationale for rejecting [her] testimony as required by SSR 96-7p." [Tr. 6-8.] Third, she complains that the ALJ's RFC assessment is conclusory. [Tr. 8-9.] Fourth, Holleran argues that the vocational expert improperly relied on the DOT. [Tr. 9-11.] Finally, Holleran contends that the ALJ's alternative finding that she is capable of performing other positions in the national economy, besides her past relevant work, is not supported by substantial evidence. [Tr. 11-13.]
Holleran argues that the ALJ failed to "discuss and resolve or discredit conflicts in the evidence, " complaining specifically of three instances in which she believes the ALJ neglected his duties in reviewing the record. [R. 12 at 5.] In sum, she argues that the ALJ erred in weighing the medical opinion evidence. [R. 12 at 7.]
When deciding how much weight to afford a medical opinion, the following factors should be considered: (1) the nature of the examining relationship, (2) treating relationship, (3) the supportability of the source's opinion, (4) the opinion's consistency with the record as a whole, (5) the doctor's degree of specialization, and (6) any other factors which tend to support or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c); § 416.927(e); see also SSR 96-6p at *2-*3. The opinions of doctors who actually examine a claimant are generally given more weight than the opinions of non-examining sources although the opinion of a doctor who only examined a claimant once is not ...