United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
DAVID L. BUNNING, District Judge.
Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Court, having reviewed the record, will affirm the Commissioner's decision, as it is supported by substantial evidence.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff Jamey Hodge protectively filed his current application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments, alleging disability as of March 18, 2002. (Tr. 172-174). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 83-85). On November 12, 2008 and February 11, 2009, Administrative Law Judge Charles J. Arnold conducted administrative hearings at Plaintiff's request. (Tr. 18-28, 43-56). ALJ Arnold ruled that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits on April 24, 2009. (Tr. 7-17). This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on October 27, 2009. (Tr. 1-4).
Plaintiff appealed that decision to this Court on December 30, 2009. See Case No. 5:09-416-DCR (Tr. 386). The Commissioner ultimately acknowledged that remand was appropriate "to allow the ALJ to reevaluate the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity for sedentary work in light of the functional limitations identified by Dr. Fritzhand and the state agency physician." (Tr. 403-08). Accordingly, the Court remanded the matter for further administrative proceedings pursuant to Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) on July 7, 2010. (Id. ). The Appeals Council then vacated the final decision of the Commissioner and remanded the case to Administrative Law Judge Don C. Paris on September 24, 2010. (Tr. 409-12).
ALJ Paris held an additional hearing on June 9, 2011. (Tr. 344-81). Plaintiff and Vocational Expert Jackie B. Rogers testified at this proceeding. (Id. ). On July 7, 2011, ALJ Paris found that Plaintiff has not been under a disability since the application date. (Tr. 383-98). Plaintiff's non-attorney representative, Kim Murphy, drafted written exceptions to ALJ Paris' decision and submitted them to the Appeals Council for review. (Tr. 32). The Appeals Council considered these exceptions and found no reason to assume jurisdiction, thus making ALJ Paris' decision the final decision of the Commissioner on April 17, 2014. (Tr. 339-42).
On June 19, 2014, Plaintiff filed the instant action. (Docs. # 1 and 2). Plaintiff asks this Court to reverse the Commissioner's most recent decision and order an outright award of benefits. (Doc. # 10-1 at 8). This matter has culminated in cross motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for the Court's review. (Docs. # 10 and 11).
A. Overview of the Process
Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is restricted to determining whether it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards. See Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). "Substantial evidence" is defined as "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." Id. Courts are not to conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or make credibility determinations. Id. Rather, we are to affirm the Commissioner's decision, provided it is supported by substantial evidence, even if we might have decided the case differently. See Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999).
The ALJ, in determining disability, conducts a five-step analysis. Step 1 considers whether the claimant is still performing substantial gainful activity; Step 2, whether any of the claimant's impairments are "severe"; Step 3, whether the impairments meet or equal a listing in the Listing of Impairments; Step 4, whether the claimant can still perform his past relevant work; and Step 5, whether significant numbers of other jobs exist in the national economy which the claimant can perform. As to the last step, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the Commissioner. See Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003); Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).
B. The ALJ's Determination
At Step 1, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date. (Tr. 388). At Step 2, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's chronic backache, morbid obesity, anxiety disorder not otherwise specified and avoidant and dependent features are severe impairments within the meaning of the regulations. (Id. ). The ALJ further found that Plaintiff's hypertension constitutes a non-severe impairment. (Id. ).
At Step 3, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed in, or medically equal to, an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 391-93). The ALJ first noted that Plaintiff's physical impairments did not meet or equal Listing 1.04 (spine disorders) because "the record is devoid of evidence of nerve root compression, spinal arachnoiditis or lumbar spinal stenosis." (Id. ). Although obesity has been deleted from ...