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Anderson v. Colvin

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

December 21, 2016

JAMES MICHAEL ANDERSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          GREGORY F. VAN TATENHOVE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         James Michael Anderson seeks judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which denied Anderson's claim for supplemental security income benefits as well as disability insurance benefits. Mr. Anderson brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), alleging various errors on the part of the ALJ considering the matter. The Court, having reviewed the record and for the reasons set forth herein, will GRANT Mr. Anderson's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 12] and REMAND the action to the Social Security Administration for further consideration.

         I

         A

         Plaintiff James Michael Anderson filed an application for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental social security in July 2013, alleging disability beginning on January 6, 2012. [Transcript (hereinafter, “Tr.”) 21.] Anderson's motion for summary judgment explains that Anderson suffers from, among other things, back pain, hernias, and mental health issues such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. [See R. 12-1 at 2.] Anderson's claims for Title II and Title XVI benefits were denied initially and upon reconsideration. [Tr. 21.] Subsequently, a hearing was conducted upon Anderson's request. [See id.] Following the hearing, ALJ Ronald M. Kayser issued a final decision denying both of Anderson's claims for benefits. [Tr. 21-28.]

         To evaluate a claim of disability for both Title II disability insurance benefit claims and Title XVI supplemental security income claims, an ALJ conducts a five-step analysis. Compare 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (disability insurance benefit claims) with 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (supplemental security income claims).[1] 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, 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 on to the fourth step, the ALJ must use all of 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 impairment 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 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(e). 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).

         Through step four of the analysis, “the claimant bears the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by her impairments and the fact that she is precluded from performing her past relevant work.” Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to identify a significant number of jobs that accommodate the claimant's profile, but the claimant retains the ultimate burden of proving his lack of residual functional capacity. Id.; Jordon v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 548 F.3d 417, 423 (6th Cir. 2008).

         At the outset of this case, the ALJ determined that Mr. Anderson meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016. [Tr. 21, 23]; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.131. Then at step one, the ALJ found Anderson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date. [Tr. 23.] At step two, the ALJ found Anderson to suffer from the severe impairments of status-post hernia, bulging in the lumbar spine, mild foraminal stenosis in the cervical spine, and a recurrent major depressive disorder. [Tr. 24.] At step three, the ALJ determined Anderson's combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404 or Part 416. [Id.] Before moving on to step four, the ALJ considered the entire record and determined Anderson possessed the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), with certain limitations described as follows:

[H]e can only frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, crouch kneel and crawl; and must avoid climbing ropes, scaffolds and ladders. He can perform the mental demands of unskilled work, including the ability to understand, remember and carry out detailed instructions and deal with change in the workplace.

[Tr. 25.] After explaining how he determined Anderson's RFC [Tr. 25-26], the ALJ found at step four that, based on this RFC, Anderson is capable of performing various jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded Anderson was not disabled under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) or 416.920(g). [Tr. 27-28.] The Appeals Council initially declined to review the ALJ's decision [see Tr. 8], but the Appeals Council then set aside that decision to consider additional information presented by Mr. Anderson.[2] [Tr. 1-2.] After considering the new information, however, the Appeals Council once again declined to review the ALJ's decision. [See id.] Anderson now seeks judicial review in this Court.

         B

         The Court's review is generally 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] decision makers can go either way, without interference by the courts.” Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (quoting Baker v. Heckler, 730 F.2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir. 1984)).

         To determine whether substantial evidence exists, 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); 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 ...


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