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Baker v. Berryhill

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

April 20, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT



         Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Court, having reviewed the record and the parties' dispositive motions, and for the reasons set forth herein, hereby affirms the decision of the Commissioner.


         On July 1, 2013, Plaintiff Meloris Aieleen Baker protectively applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) payments, alleging disability beginning on July 1, 2013. (Tr. 10, 42, 53). Plaintiff's application was denied initially and again on reconsideration. (Tr. 91-94, 97-110). At Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was conducted on April 23, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Don C. Paris. (Tr. 21-41). On May 21, 2015, ALJ Paris ruled that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits. (Tr. 10-16). This decision became final when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on March 25, 2016. (Tr. 1-5). Plaintiff filed the instant action on May 27, 2016. (Doc. # 1). The matter has culminated in cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for adjudication. (Docs. # 12 and 13).


         A. Overview of the Process

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is restricted to determining whether it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards. See Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 729 (6th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence” is defined as “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 Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). Courts are not to conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or make credibility determinations. Id. Rather, the court is required to affirm the Commissioner's decision, as long as it is supported by substantial evidence, even if it might have decided the case differently. Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's findings must be affirmed, even if there is evidence favoring Plaintiff's side. Listenbee v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 345, 349 (6th Cir. 1988). Similarly, an administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported the opposite conclusion. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 780, 781-82 (6th Cir. 1996).

         To determine disability, the ALJ conducts a five-step analysis. “If, at any step during the process, it is determined that the claimant is or is not disabled, the process is terminated.” Despins v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 257 F. App'x 923, 928-29 (6th Cir. 2007). Step One considers whether the claimant can still perform substantial gainful activity; Step Two, whether any of the claimant's impairments, alone or in combination, are “severe;” Step Three, whether the impairments meet or equal a listing in the Listing of Impairments; Step Four, whether the claimant can still perform her past relevant work; and Step Five, whether a significant number of other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. As to the last step, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the Commissioner to identify “jobs in the economy that accommodate [Plaintiff's] residual functional capacity.” See Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003); see also Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).

         B. The ALJ's Determination

         ALJ Paris began the sequential evaluation by determining at Step One that the Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of July 1, 2013. (Tr. 12). At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments that has “significantly limited (or is expected to significantly limit) the ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months.” (Tr. 13-15). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from the alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (Tr. 15-16).

         C. Analysis

         Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred by terminating the sequential evaluation at Step Two and asks the Court to reverse and remand the disability determination. (Doc. # 12-1 at 1). Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the record supports the conclusion that she suffered from a “severe” impairment or combination of impairments because she has been “diagnosed with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, degenerative changes in her back, and perhaps [has] rheumatoid arthritis.” Id. Plaintiff also claims that the “ALJ failed to consider whether [her] carpal tunnel syndrome and lumbar spine degeneration, in combination, specifically limited her physical ability to do basic work activities.” Id.

         1. The ALJ applied the correct legal standard at Step Two.

         The Plaintiff makes two arguments regarding the ALJ's application of the legal standard for Step Two. First, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ “did not address the issue of rheumatoid arthritis in his decision.” (Doc. # 12-1 at 3-4). The record belies this assertion.

         Step Two involves two related inquiries. Initially, the ALJ must identify a claimant's medically determinable impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521. To establish a medically determinable impairment, the claimant must present proof of a “physical or mental impairment” that can “be established by objective medical evidence from an acceptable medical source.” Id. Therefore, there must be evidence of the impairment “shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” Id. The ALJ will not rely on a claimant's “statement of symptoms, a diagnosis, or a medical opinion to establish the existence of an impairment(s).” Id. Finally, and only after the claimant establishes that they “have a medically determinable impairment(s), ” the ALJ considers “whether [the claimant's] impairment(s) is severe.” Id. Here, the ALJ concluded that “the medical evidence of record [did] not support medically determinable impairments related to” arthritis. (Tr. 13). Therefore, the ALJ did not analyze whether Plaintiff's potential arthritis was “severe.”

         In support of her argument that the ALJ “did not address the issue of rheumatoid arthritis in his decision, ” the Plaintiff cites to November 2014 records from the University of Kentucky's Neuroscience Institute. (Doc. # 12-1 at 3) (citing Tr. 291-296 (“Exhibit 6F”)). Those records indicate a possible diagnosis of arthritis and recommend “labs to rule out other confounding factors, bilateral wrist x-rays to assess RA affect, and referral to Rheum[atologist] for evaluation and treatment of RA.” (Tr. 294; “Exhibit 6F”, p. 4). Plaintiff's counsel apparently believes that Medicaid “did not approve these further tests” and thus, “they were not done.” (Doc. # 12-1 at 4). However, that testing did occur, and the ALJ relied on that testing in refusing to consider Plaintiff's “possible” arthritis as a medically determinable impairment. (Tr. 283-290; “Exhibit 5F”, p. 1-8).

         Contrary to the Plaintiff's argument, the ALJ specifically considered Plaintiff's “possible [diagnosis] of rheumatoid arthritis.” (Tr. 13). However, there was no conclusive diagnosis for Plaintiff's “possible” arthritis - diagnostic imaging studies and laboratory tests all proved to be within normal limits. Relying on the February 2015 medical records from the University of Kentucky's Department of Rheumatology (Tr. 283-290; “Exhibit 5F”, p. 1-8), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's “possible” arthritis did not constitute a medically determinable impairment because “examinations have not included any tenderpoint inventory, and x-rays of the claimant's hands and wrists … showed no erosive changes.” (Tr. 13). Likewise, testing “found normal c-reactive protein and sedimentation rate.” Id. (citing ...

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