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Buck v. Berryhill

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

March 23, 2017

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Gregory F. Van Tatenhove United States District Judge.

         Jeffrey Todd Buck seeks judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which denied Buck's claim for supplemental security income benefits, disability insurance benefits, and continuation of a period of disability. Mr. Buck 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 DENY Mr. Buck's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 11] and will GRANT the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 14.]



         Plaintiff Jeffrey Todd Buck filed an application for a Title II period of disability and disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental social security in December 2012, alleging disability beginning on July 1, 2012. [Transcript (hereinafter, “Tr.”) 13.] Buck's motion for summary judgment explains that Buck suffers from, among other things, stress induced weight loss, lack of appetite due to pain, back pain that runs into both legs, disc trouble, severe arthritis in both thumbs, occasional limited mobility due to pain, and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. [See R. 11-1 at 2.] Buck's claims for Title II and Title XVI benefits were denied initially and upon reconsideration. [Tr. 13.] Subsequently, a hearing was conducted upon Buck's request. [See id.] Following the hearing, ALJ Charles J. Arnold issued a final decision denying all of Buck's claims for benefits. [Tr. 13-22.]

         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. Buck meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 30, 2015. [Tr. 13, 15]; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.131. Then at step one, the ALJ found Buck had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 1, 2012, his alleged disability onset date. [Tr. 15.] At step two, the ALJ found Buck to suffer from the severe impairments of depression, lumbar degenerative disc disease, spinal degenerative changes, and radiculopathy. [Tr. 15.] At step three, the ALJ determined Buck'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 Buck possessed the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), with certain limitations described as follows:

[L]imited to low stress unskilled work without high production demands; no more than simple, routine, repetitive tasks with simple instructions; no interactions with the public; and only minimal or indirect contact with others at the worksite.

[Tr. 17.] After explaining how he determined Buck's RFC [Tr. 17-20], the ALJ found at step four that, based on this RFC, Buck is unable to perform past relevant work. [Tr. 21.] Even in light of this finding, the ALJ found that, following the vocational expert's testimony, due to the Buck's relatively young age, English language ability, education, RFC, and work experience, there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Buck can perform. [Id.] Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Buck could successfully adjust to other work and that Buck was not disabled under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) or 416.920(g). [Tr. 21-22.] Since the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's opinion serves as the Commissioner's final decision. [See Tr. 1-3.] Buck now seeks judicial review in this Court.


         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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