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Sumner v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, London

April 26, 2017

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


          Joseph M. Hood, Senior U.S. District Judge

         Plaintiff Charlene Sumner 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, will AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision, as it is supported by substantial evidence.


         Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining whether it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards. Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). “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.” Id. Courts are not to conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or make credibility determinations. Id. Rather, we are to affirm the Commissioner's decision, provided it is supported by substantial evidence, even if we might have decided the case differently. See Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999).

         The ALJ, in determining disability, conducts a five-step analysis. See Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). Step One considers whether the claimant is still performing substantial gainful activity; Step Two, whether any of the claimant's impairments 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 his past relevant work; and Step Five, whether significant numbers of other jobs exist in the national economy which the claimant can perform. As to the last step, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the Commissioner. Id.; see also Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).


         On January 7, 2008, Plaintiff filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income (“SSI”), alleging disability as of July 1, 2003. [TR 192-94]. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. [TR 63-64, 78-87]. Plaintiff then requested a hearing on the matter. [TR 69-72]. However, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) David Daugherty reviewed the evidence of record and found that it “support[ed] a fully favorable decision, ” obviating the need for a hearing. [Id.]. Accordingly, on October 6, 2008, ALJ Daugherty issued a written decision, in which he concluded that Plaintiff was disabled as of July 1, 2003. [Id.]. Attorney Eric C. Conn represented Plaintiff throughout this disability determination process. [Id.].

         The Office of the Inspector General later notified the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) that there was reason to believe that fraud was involved in certain cases submitted to the SSA by Eric C. Conn, which included faulty evidence submitted by Bradley Adkins, Ph. D., Srinivas Ammisetty, M.D., Frederic Huffnagle, M.D., and/or David P. Herr, D.O., between January 2007 and May 2011. [TR 20]. Because Plaintiff was represented by Eric C. Conn during the aforementioned time period, and because her case included evidence obtained from one or more of the aforementioned medical providers, the SSA had to redetermine her eligibility for benefits. [Id.].

         In redetermining Plaintiff's claim for benefits, the Appeals Council (“AC”) was obliged to disregard all evidence obtained from the aforementioned medical providers. [Id.]. On July 16, 2015, the AC found that ALJ Daugherty's decision was not supported by the remaining evidence. [TR 73-74]. It then remanded the case to ALJ Joseph R. Doyle for a new hearing and further redetermination proceedings. [Id.; TR 20].

         On March 11, 2016, ALJ Doyle held a video hearing. [TR 21]. Plaintiff, now represented by attorney Ronald C. Cox, participated in the hearing, along with impartial vocational expert David E. Stewart. [Id.]. Consistent with the AC's instructions, ALJ Doyle disregarded evidence obtained from the aforementioned medical providers, but “considered all other evidence relating to the period prior to the original allowance date of October 6, 2008, including new and material evidence reasonably related to the period at issue.” [TR 21]. ALJ Doyle also preserved Plaintiff's objection to the constitutionality of the redetermination process, but explained that he lacked the authority to adjudicate the issue. [Id.]. He then proceeded with his disability determination analysis. [Id.].

         At Step One, ALJ Doyle found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. [TR 24]. At Step Two, he concluded that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia/chronic pain syndrome, arthritis, affective mood disorder, and sleep impairment. [TR 21]. At Step Three, ALJ Doyle determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed in, or medically equal to, an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [TR 26-29]. In reaching this conclusion, ALJ Doyle found that Plaintiff's arthritis did not meet the requirements of Listing 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint) because she “ambulated independently without difficulty, demonstrated intact motor strength in all extremities and was found to have normal gross manipulation and grip strength.” [TR 26].

         ALJ Doyle also determined that Plaintiff's back pain did not meet Listing 1.04 (disorders of the spine) because the medical records “did not establish the requisite evidence of nerve root compression, spinal arachnoiditis or lumbar spinal stenosis.”[2][Id.]. Finally, he concluded that Plaintiff's mental impairments did not meet the criteria of Listing 12.04 (depressive, bipolar and related disorders) or Listing 12.06 (anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders) because Plaintiff had only mild restrictions in activities of daily living, moderate difficulties with concentration, and no extended episodes of decompensation.[3] [TR 27-28].

         At Step Four, ALJ Doyle found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c), except that Plaintiff “could never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; should avoid all exposure to operational controls of moving machinery and unprotected heights; and limited to the performance of simple, routine and repetitive tasks.” [TR 29]. Because Plaintiff had no past relevant work, transferability of job skills was not an issue. [TR 34].

         ALJ Doyle then proceeded to the final step of the sequential evaluation. [TR 34-35]. At Step Five, he determined that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. [Id.]. ALJ Doyle based this conclusion on testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), in response to a hypothetical question assuming an individual of Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC. [Id.]. The VE testified that such an individual could find work as a buffer (29, 300 jobs nationwide), checker (480, 000 jobs nationwide) or hand packager (43, 100 jobs nationwide). [Id.]. Based on the testimony of the VE, ALJ Doyle found that Plaintiff was capable of making a successful adjustment to other work. [Id.]. Thus, he concluded ...

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