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Elswick v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, Pikeville

April 25, 2017

JUANITA ELSWICK PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DAVID L. BUNNING UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         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.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On February 13, 2013, Plaintiff Juanita Elswick applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments, alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2012. (Tr. 20, 186-191). Plaintiffs application was denied initially and again on reconsideration. (Tr. 70-71). At Plaintiffs request, an administrative hearing was conducted on June 10, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Maria Hodges. (Tr. 39-54). On July 8, 2015, ALJ Hodges issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits. (Tr. 20-32). This decision became final when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review on July 9, 2016. (Tr. 1-6). Plaintiff filed the instant action on August 4, 2016. (Doc. # 1). The matter has culminated in cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for adjudication. (Docs. # 11 and 13).

         II. DISCUSSION

         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 [Plaintiffs] 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 Hodges began the sequential evaluation by determining at Step One that the Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her application date of February 13, 2013. (Tr. 22). At Step Two, the ALJ found that Plaintiffs degenerative disc disease, arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), adjustment disorder, and anxiety disorder were severe impairments within the meaning of the regulations. (Tr. 22-25).

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, listed in or medically equal to an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. (Tr. 25). In doing so, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiffs degenerative disc disease and arthritis impairments failed to meet the requirements of Listings 1.02, 1.04, or 14.09. Id. The ALJ further found that Plaintiffs COPD did not meet or equal the requirements of Listing 3.02. Id. Similarly, the ALJ found that Plaintiffs mental impairments, considered singly and in combination, did not meet or medically equal Listing 12.04 or Listing 12.06. (Tr. 26).

         At Step Four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium work activity with the additional following restrictions:

[Plaintiff can] frequently climb ramps/stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl; occasionally climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds; frequently handle; and should avoid concentrated exposure to vibration, hazards, and pulmonary irritants. Mentally, she can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions; and should have only occasional interaction with others with no production quotas.

(Tr. 27). Based upon this RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a food preparation worker or food service worker. (Tr. 30).

         Accordingly, the ALJ proceeded to the final step of the sequential evaluation. At Step Five, the ALJ found that there are a significant number of jobs in the economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 31). The ALJ based this conclusion on testimony from a vocational expert (VE), in response to a hypothetical question assuming an individual of Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC. Id. The VE testified that a hypothetical individual with Plaintiffs vocation profile and RFC could find medium-level work as a store laborer or sorter, light-level work as a package tagger or small parts assembler, or sedentary-level work ...


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