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Scott v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

March 3, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.


          Robert E. Wier United States Magistrate Judge

         Cynthia Scott appeals the Commissioner's denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The Court GRANTS the Commissioner's motion (DE #18) and DENIES Scott's motion (DE #17) because substantial evidence supports the findings resulting in the administrative decision, and the decision rests on proper legal standards.


         Scott is currently 56 years old. See R. at 9 (indicating date of birth of 9/6/1960). She alleges disability beginning on March 30, 2008. See R. at 207. Scott applied for benefits on September 4, 2012. Id. Her claims were initially denied on January 31, 2013, see R. at 215-16, and upon reconsideration on May 3, 2013. See R. at 229. Scott then filed a written request for a hearing on May 29, 2013. R. at 242-43. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Sheila Lowther held a hearing on the application on July 24, 2014. R. at 262-66. At the hearing, Scott appeared and testified; attorney Amber Eubank represented her. R. at 177-99. Joyce Forrest, an impartial vocational expert (VE), also testified. R. at 200-05. The ALJ subsequently denied Scott's claims on October 20, 2014. R. at 162-71. The Appeals Council denied review and thus upheld the ALJ's decision on February 23, 2016. R. at 1-4.

         The ALJ made several particular findings. She determined that Scott did not engage in substantial gainful activity from March 30, 2008, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2013, the last date Scott met the Social Security Act's insured status requirements. See R. at 167. The ALJ next determined that Scott has a severe impairment: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. R. at 168. However, ALJ Lowther then found that Scott “did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1[.]” R. at 169. The ALJ further found that Scott “had the residual functional capacity to perform light work[, ]” with some limitations, and “was capable of performing past relevant work as a general accountant and financial advisor.” R. at 169-70. “Even if” Scott “could not perform past relevant work, ” the ALJ found, the VE “identified jobs existing in significant numbers” that Scott could perform. R. at 171. Based on all these considerations, the ALJ determined that Scott “was not under a disability . . . from March 30, 2008, . . . through December 31, 2013[.]” R. at 171. Unsatisfied with the result of the SSA's administrative process, Scott turned to federal district court for review.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         The Court has carefully read the ALJ's full decision and all medical reports it cites. The Court also read and considered the full administrative hearing and record. Judicial review of the ALJ's decision to deny disability benefits is a limited and deferential inquiry into whether substantial evidence supports the denial's factual decisions and whether the ALJ properly applied relevant legal standards. Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009); Jordan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 548 F.3d 417, 422 (6th Cir. 2008); Brainard v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 1989) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427 (1971)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (providing and defining judicial review for Social Security claims) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive[.]”).

         Substantial evidence means “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); see also Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004). The Court does not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or assess questions of credibility. Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007). Similarly, the Court does not reverse findings of the Commissioner or the ALJ merely because the record contains evidence, even substantial evidence, to support a different conclusion. Warner, 375 F.3d at 390. Rather, the Court must affirm the ALJ's decision if substantial evidence supports it, even if the Court might have decided the case differently. See Longworth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005); Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999).

         The ALJ, when determining disability, conducts a five-step analysis. See Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At Step 1, the ALJ considers whether the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity. See Preslar, 14 F.3d at 1110. At Step 2, the ALJ determines whether one or more of the claimant's impairments are severe. Id. At Step 3, the ALJ analyzes whether the claimant's impairments, alone or in combination, meet or equal an entry in the Listing of Impairments. Id. At Step 4, the ALJ determines RFC and whether the claimant can perform past relevant work. Id. The inquiry at this stage is whether the claimant can still perform that type of work, not necessarily the specific past job. See Studaway v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 815 F.2d 1074, 1076 (6th Cir. 1987). Finally, at Step 5, when the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner, if the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the ALJ determines whether significant numbers of other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform, given the applicable RFC. See Preslar, 14 F.3d at 1110; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). If the ALJ determines at any step that the claimant is not disabled, the analysis ends at that step. Mowery v. Heckler, 771 F.2d 966, 969 (6th Cir. 1985); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         When reviewing the ALJ's application of the legal standards, the Court gives deference to her interpretation of the law and reviews the decision for reasonableness and consistency with governing statutes. Whiteside v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 834 F.2d 1289, 1292 (6th Cir. 1987). In a Social Security benefits case, the SSA's construction of the statute should be followed “unless there are compelling indications that it is wrong.” Merz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 969 F.2d 201, 203 (6th Cir. 1992) (quoting Whiteside, 834 F.2d at 1292).

         B. The ALJ did not commit reversible error in her consideration of Scott's impairments.

         First, Scott argues that the ALJ erred by not considering “the symptoms of [her] history of colon cancer, anxiety, depression, and sacroilitis[.]” DE #17-1, at 6. Scott also lists osteopenia, abdominal pain, and plantar fasciitis at various points in the brief. See Id. at 5; id. at 6 (“The ALJ excluded entirely from her review the claimant's documented conditions of plantar fasciitis, osteopenia, abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea.”). Scott specifically targets alleged ALJ “err[or] at Step Two” concerning identification of severe impairments. Id.

         ALJ Lowther found but one severe impairment: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). R. at 168. The ALJ, however, specifically “considered singly and in combination” Scott's “history of colon cancer, anxiety, depression, and sacroilitis[.]” Id.[2] Nevertheless, based on the findings of “medical and psychological consultants, ” the ALJ found that these maladies “did not cause more than minimal limitation in [Scott's] ability to perform basic mental work activities and were therefore nonsevere.” Id.

         The Sixth Circuit has succinctly explained why Scott's argument regarding step two, in the circumstances, has little traction:

Pompa argues that the ALJ erred by finding that a number of her impairments were not severe under the regulations. However, the ALJ did determine that Pompa had at least one severe impairment. Under the regulations, once the ALJ determines that a claimant has at least one severe impairment, the ALJ must consider all impairments, severe and non-severe, in the remaining steps. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(e). Because the ALJ found that Pompa had a severe impairment at step two of the analysis, the question of whether the ALJ characterized any other alleged impairment as severe or not severe is of little consequence. As the ALJ considered all of Pompa's impairments in her residual functional capacity assessment finding, Pompa's argument is without merit.

Pompa v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 73 F. App'x 801, 803 (6th Cir. 2003) (emphasis added). Here, too, the ALJ found that Scott had at least one severe impairment, and thus (and explicitly) considered all impairments-severe and nonsevere-in the subsequent steps. See R. at 169 (noting the ALJ's “careful consideration of the entire record”); id. (the ALJ stating she “considered all symptoms”). “[I]t is well settled that[] an ALJ can consider all the evidence without directly addressing in h[er] written decision every piece of evidence submitted by a party.” Kornecky v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 167 F. App'x 496, 507-08 (6th Cir. 2006) (internal alteration omitted). Further, ...

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