United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
GREGORY F. VAN TATENHOVE, District Judge.
The plaintiff, Joseph Barnes, seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his applications for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). For the reasons stated herein, the Court will deny Barnes' Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 29], and grant that of the Commissioner [R. 30].
Joseph Barnes, who was thirty-years old at the time of his alleged disability onset date, suffers from a bipolar and mood disorder. [Tr. 11.] Barnes reports that he is paranoid and anxious around people and does what he can to avoid crowds. He has a high-school education with some college and has expressed interest in returning for more education. [Tr. 14.] Barnes has been married twice, but neither marriage lasted long. [ Id. ] He has a fairly extensive work history although none of his jobs last for long, and while not an occupation, Barnes' workout routine is rigorous, weightlifting almost as if it is his job. [ Id. ] On August 29, 2012, Barnes applied for benefits, alleging a disability onset date of October 31, 2010. [Tr. 175-191.] After Barnes applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration [Tr. 55-78, 79-104], Barnes requested a hearing which was conducted before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Donald Paris. [Tr. 23-54.] At that hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Barnes, and from Betty Hale, a vocational expert. [ Id. ] On August 22, 2013, ALJ Paris issued a decision denying benefits. [Tr. 9-18.]
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 claimant 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 Barnes had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date. [Tr. 11.] At Step 2, the ALJ found that Barnes' "mood and/or bipolar disorder" qualified as severe impairments. [ Id. ] At Step 3, the ALJ concluded that Barnes 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. [Tr. 12.] Next, the ALJ concluded that Barnes had a residual functional capacity (RFC) to "perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, " but has the following "mental-based non-exertional limitations":
He can complete simple 2-3 step commands and some complex instructions. He can maintain attention and concentration, for at least two hours at a time as required to perform simple tasks, sufficiently to complete an eight-hour workday and forty-hour workweek. The claimant has the ability to interact appropriately on a consistent basis with others. Contact with others should be casual. Supervision should be direct. The claimant is able to adapt to routine changes and respond to directions from others. Changes in the work environment should be gradually introduced.
[Tr. 13.] At Step 4, the ALJ found that the Barnes has no relevant past work. [Tr. 16.] At Step 5, after "[c]onsidering Barnes' age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, " the ALJ decided that "there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Barnes] can perform." [Tr. 17.] Barnes appealed on October 30, 2013, but the Appeals Council found no reason to upset the ALJ's decision [Tr. 1-4], and Barnes 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).
Barnes challenges the ALJ's RFC assessment. His first, and primary, argument is that the ALJ's decision to give little weight to the opinions of Nurse Landry and Dr. O'Neill, while giving great weight to the opinions of State Agency Psychological Consultant Dr. Mark Gilson "stood [the] process on its head." [R. 29-1 at 10-14.] Instead, he believes the ALJ should have given controlling weight to Nurse Landry's opinion that Barnes had "no useful ability" to "deal with work stresses." [ Id. at 11.] In a related argument, Barnes argues that the ALJ erred by not providing "good reasons" for discounting Nurse Landry's opinions. [ Id. at 11.] Finally, Barnes claims it ...