United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London
ERIN N. REYNOLDS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
GREGORY F. VAN TATENHOVE, District Judge.
The Plaintiff, Erin Reynolds, 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 Reynolds' application for supplemental security income (SSI). The Court, having reviewed the record and for the reasons set forth herein, will DENY Reynolds' Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 27] and GRANT the Commissioner's. [R. 26.]
Reynolds filed an application for SSI on June 7, 2010. [Transcript (Tr.) 107-10.] She alleges a disability beginning on June 1, 2010, due to multiple sclerosis (MS), optic neuritis, and social anxiety. [Tr. 121.] Reynolds' application was denied initially and upon reconsideration in December 2010. [Tr. 15.] Subsequently, at Reynolds' request, an administrative hearing was conducted by video before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Gregory O. Varo on August 19, 2011. [Tr. 29-46.] Reynolds, who was eighteen years old when she filed her application, has a high school education and some college. [Tr. 121, 35-36.] She has no past relevant work. [Tr. 22.]
In evaluating a claim of disability, an ALJ conducts a five-step analysis. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. First, if a claimant is working at a substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). Second, if a claimant does not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits 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. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). 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. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). 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. § 404.1545. Fourth, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work, and if a claimant's impairments do not prevent her from doing past relevant work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Fifth, if a claimant's impairments (considering her residual functional capacity, age, education, and past relevant work) prevent her from doing other work that exists in the national economy, then she is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).
In this case, at Step 1, the ALJ found that Reynolds had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 7, 2010, the alleged onset date. [Tr. 17.] At Step 2, the ALJ found that Reynolds has two "severe" impairments: multiple sclerosis and history of optic neuritis. [ Id. ] At Step 3, the ALJ found that Reynolds' impairments 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 Reynolds possessed the residual functional capacity to perform limited light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b). [Tr. 20-22.] At Steps 4 and 5, the ALJ found that although Reynolds has no past relevant work, considering her age, her education, and her RFC, there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Reynolds could perform. [Tr. 22-23.] Accordingly, on September 2, 2011, the ALJ found that Reynolds was not "disabled" and therefore is ineligible for SSI. [Tr. 23]. The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision [Tr. 1], and Reynolds 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).
On appeal, Reynolds primarily challenges the ALJ's ultimate determination that she was capable of a limited range of light work. [R. 12-4 at 10-13.] In doing so, Reynolds presents two main arguments - first, that the ALJ failed to consider the progressive nature of multiple sclerosis, and second that the ALJ improperly found that Reynolds' severe impairments did not meet or equal Listing of Impairment 11.09. [R. 12-4 at 11-12.] Because these arguments are integrally related to the ALJ's determination of Reynolds' RFC, however, the Court will first examine the key issue of whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings concerning the 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 workrelated 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). Given the role of the Court at this stage in the process, the key issue concerning Reynolds' RFC is whether the ALJ's determination is supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 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, ALJ Varo determined that Reynolds could perform limited light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b) with the following restrictions:
Lift 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; stand/walk 6 hours in an 8hour day; sit 6 hours in an 8-hour day; frequently climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders ropes or scaffolds; frequently stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat; avoid all exposure to hazards ...