United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northen Division, Ashland
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
GREGORY F. VAN TATENHOVE, District Judge.
The Plaintiff, Deanna Elaine Hunt, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying Hunt's application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB). The Court, having reviewed the record and for the reasons set forth herein, will DENY Hunt's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 6] and GRANT the Commissioner's. [R. 7.]
Hunt filed an application for DIB on March 17, 2011. [Transcript (Tr.) 144-47.] She alleges a disability beginning on August 30, 2008, due to pain in her hips, back, knees, and arms; degenerative disc disease; hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and obesity; depression and anxiety; and stomach problems such as gastroesophageal reflux and a hiatal hernia. [Tr. 15-17.] Her date last insured is December 31, 2013. [Tr. 15.] Hunt's application was denied initially on June 1, 2011, and upon reconsideration on August 31, 2011. [Tr. 25.] Subsequently, at Hunt's request, an administrative hearing was conducted before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Toby J. Buel, Sr. on November 5, 2012. [Tr. 28-57.] During the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Hunt and from vocational expert (VE) Gina Baldwin. [ Id. ] Hunt, who was forty-eight years old at the time of the hearing decision, has a high school education. [Tr. 37, 40.]. She has past relevant work as a teacher's aide, which VE Baldwin described as light and semi-skilled, but medium as Hunt performed it. [Tr. 36.]
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 working at a substantial gainful activity, she 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 her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, then she does not have a severe impairment and is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Third, if a claimant's impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, she 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 is an assessment of one's ability to perform certain physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite any impairment experienced by the individual. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 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(f). Fifth, if a claimant's impairments (considering her residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work) prevent her from doing other work that exists in the national economy, then she is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).
In this case, at Step 1, the ALJ found that Hunt has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 30, 2008, the alleged onset date. [Tr. 15.] At Step 2, the ALJ found that Hunt has the following "severe" impairments: degenerative disc disease, hypertension, and obesity. [ Id. ] At Step 3, the ALJ found that Hunt's impairments alone or in combination did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [Tr. 18.] The ALJ then considered the entire record and determined that Hunt possessed the residual functional capacity to perform "the full range of medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(c)." [Tr. 19.] Based on the RFC, and the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ found at Step 4 that Hunt is capable of performing her past relevant work as it is generally performed in the national economy. [Tr. 23.] Accordingly, on January 14, 2013, the ALJ found that Hunt was not "disabled" and therefore is ineligible for DIB. [Tr. 23]. The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision [Tr. 1], and Hunt 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); Longworth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005). The substantial evidence standard "presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which decision makers can go either way, without interference from the court." Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) ( en banc ) (quotes and citations omitted).
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, courts are not to conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in evidence, or make credibility determinations. Ulman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012) (citations 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. Ulman, 693 F.3d at 714 ; Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007).
Hunt's primary argument on appeal appears to be that the ALJ's final decision was not supported by substantial evidence. [R. 6 at 6-8.] Although this argument includes several additional arguments, it is integrally related to the ALJ's RFC determination. Thus, the Court will address Hunt's arguments by first examining the key issue of whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding concerning her RFC. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). An individual's RFC is an administrative determination about the person's maximum ability to perform work-related activities and reflects the most that the person can do in a work-related setting despite his or her limitations. SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *5; 20 C.F.R. §404.1545(a)(1). This assessment "is based upon consideration of all relevant evidence in the case record, " including medical evidence as well as the individual's own statements of what he or she can do. SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *5; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). As noted above, this Court must give deference to the Commissioner's decision "[e]ven if this Court might have reached a contrary conclusion of fact... so long as [the decision] is supported by substantial evidence." Kyle v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 609 F.3d 847, 854-55 (6th Cir. 2010); Ulman, 693 F.3d at 714.
Here, despite Hunt's claim that ALJ Buel made "an arbitrary and capricious decision to improperly discount the severity of [her] impairments" and to "substitute his impression of [Hunt's] disability over medical judgments in the record, " [R. 6 at 6] this accusation is simply incorrect. ALJ Buel acknowledged that Hunt suffered from three severe impairments, and in doing so he properly applied the administrative definitions of "severity." [Tr. 15-18.] He also properly applied the administrative framework in determining that, after examining the voluminous medical records submitted by Hunt, no treating or examining physician mentioned any findings that would equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [Tr. at 18.] On appeal, Hunt's counsel points to no error in this part of the ALJ's analysis or conclusion, nor does he point to any medical record that would contradict this finding. For Hunt to prevail in her claim, she needs to demonstrate that she suffers from an impairment that is at a "level of severity sufficient to preclude substantial gainful activity" for a duration of a continuous period of at least twelve months. Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 220 (2002) (citing other sources) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). Yet Hunt's counsel points to nothing in the record to support this claim. Instead he only offers general criticisms of the ALJ's conclusions.
In contrast, ALJ Buel gave an extensive explanation of the medical records that support his ultimate conclusion that Hunt was capable of performing medium work. Medium work is defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c) as "lifting no more than 50 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 25 pounds." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c). In making the RFC determination, the ALJ considered the extent to which Hunt's alleged symptoms were consistent with the objective medical evidence and the opinion evidence in the record, including the reports of both treating physicians and consultative examiners, and concluded that many of the medical records submitted simply do not support her allegations of disabling symptoms. [Tr. 19-22.] For example, ALJ Buel noted that despite Hunt's informing her treating physician Dr. Thad Manning in April 2009 that she had recently quit work due to her health problems, she also admitted she was off all her medications and complained primarily of pain in her left ear. [R. 21, 203-04.] She saw Dr. Manning again in August 2010 with complaints of joint pain, but three months later reported she was not taking any medications for her osteoarthritis. [Tr. 21, 200-01.] In March 2010, Hunt was treated at East Kentucky After Hours Clinic for ear pain, but had no other complaints. [Tr. 21, 455.] An examination at Pikeville Medical Center in December 2010 concluded that Hunt's respiratory and cardiovascular functioning were normal, she had intact deep tendon reflexes and good sensation, and she had normal muscle strength throughout. [Tr. 21, 267, 272, 281, 291.] At a consultative examination with Dr. Rhoads in May 2011, although Hunt reported she had had lower back pain since 2002, the examination results revealed an absence of lower extremity swelling, edema, or atrophy; intact bilateral grip strength; full range of motion of her knees; normal gait and station; no paravertebral muscle spasms; negative straight leg raise testing and ability to stand on one leg at a time without difficulty; intact cranial nerves and intact sensation; normal deep tendon reflexes; and normal muscle strength of 5/5 in all her extremities. [Tr. 21, 390-93.] From May 2011 until November 2011, Hunt only sought medical treatment for an earache, bronchitis, sinus issues, and a cough. [Tr. 456-60.] In May 2012, Hunt had a hysterectomy, but the associated physical and mental examinations were normal, and at a post-operative follow-up visit in June 2012 Hunt reported she was "feeling great" with no complaints. [Tr. 22, 461-91, 450.]
Despite Hunt's degenerative disc disease, throughout the relevant time period the various medical reports Hunt submitted reveal normal or strong musculoskeletal functioning, normal ranges of motion and normal muscle strength in her extremities, good muscle strength throughout, normal and independent ambulation, and normal neurological functioning. [Tr. 200-05, 267, 270-72, 281, 290-92.] The consultative examination on May 4, 2011 revealed that Hunt appeared "stable at station and comfortable in the supine and sitting positions, " and that her intellectual functioning, ambulation, grip strength was intact, and fine and coarse motor functions were all normal. [Tr. 390-91.] The examination also concluded that there was no tenderness, warmth, swelling or fluid in the lower extremities, no tenderness or evidence of paravertebral muscle spasm in the cervical spine or dorsolumbar spine, normal straight leg raises when tested in the sitting and supine position, normal ability to stand and to bend forward at the waist, normal muscle strength in the upper and lower extremities with no evidence of atrophy and normal sensation, and a normal ability to perform a tandem gait and squat without difficulty. [Tr. 391-92.] Moreover, Hunt reported several times that she took only Motrin for her pain, and that it proved to be somewhat effective. [Tr. 46, 52, 164.] Such non-aggressive treatment and mild medication further support the ALJ's determination that Hunt's pain was not as disabling as she alleges. See, e.g., See Kimbrough v. Sec'y of ...