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Hall v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, at Ashland

May 15, 2015

REBECCA RUTH HALL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

EDWARD B. ATKINS, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff, Rebecca Ruth Hall, brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny her application for disability insurance benefits. [R. 17-1 at 1]. Upon consent of the parties, this matter has been referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of final judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73. [R. 10]. For the reasons set forth herein, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 17] shall be denied, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 18] shall be granted, and Judgment shall be entered affirming the final decision of the Commissioner.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND & PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff was thirty-six years old at the time she allegedly became disabled on June 15, 2011 and thirty-eight years old at the time of the Commissioner's May 20, 2013 final decision. [Tr. at 159]. She has a high-school education [Tr. at 182] and has worked as a cook and a housekeeper. [Tr. at 183]. In her Disability Report, Form SSA-3368, Plaintiff claimed her work ability was limited due to back issues and depression. [Tr. at 182]. Thus, Plaintiff filed for disability insurance benefits on July 29, 2011. [Tr. at 75]. The Social Security Administration denied her claims initially [Tr. at 101] and upon reconsideration [Tr. at 106]. After denial of her claims, she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). [Tr. at 109]. Subsequently, she testified at a hearing held on May 1, 2013 before ALJ Maria Hodges. [Tr. at 38-46]. At the hearing, Plaintiff was represented by counsel, William G. Arnett. [Tr. at 38]. During the hearing, the ALJ also heard testimony from Dwight McMillion, a vocational expert. [Tr. at 38].

The ALJ ruled against Plaintiff in a written decision dated May 20, 2013. [Tr. at 38-46]. In her decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairment of "degenerative disc disease (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(c))." [Tr. at 40]. Despite this condition, the ALJ determined that "[t]he claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526)." [Tr. at 42]. Continuing with her evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, and she set forth some specific limitations in her opinion. [Tr. at 42]. Further, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work. [Tr. at 44]. However, the ALJ determined that "there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform." [Tr. at 45]. Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a "disability" as defined by the Social Security Act. [Tr. at 46]. Following the adverse decision of the ALJ, Plaintiff properly exhausted her administrative remedies by appealing to the Social Security Appeals Council, which denied her request for review. [Tr. at 1-6].

On September 8, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. [R. 1]. In her Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 17], Plaintiff sets forth multiple arguments for reversal of the ALJ's opinion. Defendant responds that the ALJ's opinion should be affirmed, as it is supported by substantial evidence. [R. 18]. The case is now ripe for review.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A reviewing court must uphold the findings of the ALJ if they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)(2006); see also Kirk v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6th Cir. 1981). The Sixth Circuit has held that "substantial evidence exists when a reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate to support a conclusion." Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). The scope of judicial review is limited to the record itself, and the reviewing court "may not try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in evidence, nor decide questions of credibility." Hogg v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 328, 331 (6th Cir. 1993).

The limited nature of substantial evidence review prevents the reviewing court from substituting its judgment for that of the ALJ. Rather, so long as substantial evidence exists, the reviewing court should affirm the ALJ's decision "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) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Sixth Circuit precedent suggests that a finding of "no substantial evidence" would be appropriate in situations where the ALJ ignores uncontested, compelling evidence for one side, makes no express findings on witness credibility and makes a ruling based on facts with "little if any evidentiary value." Noe v. Weinberger, 512 F.2d 588 (6th Cir. 1975); see also Glass v. Sec'y of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 517 F.2d 224 (6th Cir. 1975). Otherwise, if there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision, "it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently." Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994).

III. ANALYSIS

The Commissioner's regulations provide a sequential, five-step process for the evaluation of disabilities. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). First, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity; if so, she is not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). Second, if claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must determine whether she has a severe impairment; if not, she is not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Third, if claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner must compare it to those in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; if the severe impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, claimant is presumed disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). Fourth, if claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the Commissioner must determine whether claimant's impairment prevents her from doing past relevant work; if not, she is not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). Fifth, if claimant's impairment prevents her from doing past relevant work, the Commissioner must determine whether other work exists in the national economy that accommodates her RFC and vocational factors (age, education, skills, etc.); if so, she is not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

At step one of this process, there is no dispute between the parties that Plaintiff has not participated in "substantial gainful activity" since June 15, 2011, her stated disability onset date. However, Plaintiff alleges three different errors by the ALJ, each of which pertain to different steps in the Commissioner's inquiry. Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that:

1. The ALJ erred by finding that Plaintiff's mental impairments were not severe.
The ALJ erred by not weighing Plaintiff's alleged mental impairments more heavily in her ...

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