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Hunter v. Berryhill

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

May 3, 2017

SANDRA LEAN HUNTER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

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

         Plaintiff Sandra Lean Hunter 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.

         I.

         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).

         II.

         On March 19, 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). [TR 178-81]. She also protectively filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) on that date. [TR 182-93]. In both applications, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning January 5, 2013. [TR 178-81, 182-93]. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. [TR 47-100]. On November 14, 2014, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Bonnie Kittinger held an administrative hearing at Plaintiff's request. [TR 25-46, 126-28]. ALJ Kittinger issued a written decision, denying Plaintiff's claim for benefits, on February 2, 2015. [TR 23-35].

         At Step One of the disability determination process, ALJ Kittinger found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. [TR 13]. At Step Two, she concluded that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and carpal tunnel syndrome. [TR 13-14].

         At Step Three, ALJ Kittinger explained that Plaintiff “does not allege that she has an impairment of listing level severity, nor has she met her burden of presenting medical evidence that supports such a finding.” [TR 14]. Nevertheless, she “reviewed the medical evidence of record in its entirety and f[ound] that the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal the level of severity set forth in any of the listed impairments, including listing section 1.02 and 1.04 of Appendix 1.” [Id.].

         Before proceeding to Step Four, ALJ Kittinger found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform less than the full range of light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c) and § 416.967(b). [TR 14-18]. She explained:

The claimant is able to lift carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently and is able to stand/walk six hours and sit six hours in an eight-hour day. She is able to climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl occasionally and frequently handle objects; but she should not climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She should avoid concentrated exposure to cold temperature extremes and vibration and should avoid hazards, such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights.

[TR 15]. She then found that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a house cleaner at Step Four. [TR 18].

         Nevertheless, ALJ Kittinger proceeded to the final step of the sequential evaluation. [TR 18-20]. At Step Five, she determined that there were a significant number of other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. [Id.]. ALJ Kittinger 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 labor packer (5, 500 Kentucky/280, 000 nationally), bench assembler (4, 000 Kentucky/197 nationally), or machine tender (7, 000 Kentucky/339, 000 nationally). [Id.]. Based on the testimony of the VE, ALJ Kittinger alternatively found that Plaintiff was capable of making a successful adjustment to other work. [Id.]. Thus, she concluded that Plaintiff was not under a “disability, ” as defined by the Social Security Act, from January 5, 2013, the alleged onset date, through the date of the administrative decision. [Id.].

         ALJ Kittinger's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on May 10, 2016. [TR 1-6]. Plaintiff filed the instant action on June 24, 2016. [DE 2]. Consistent with the Court's Standing Scheduling Order, the parties have submitted cross motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for review. [DE 13, 15]. Plaintiff argues that ALJ Kittinger's administrative decision is not supported by substantial evidence for two reasons, both of which relate to the RFC assessment. First, she argues that ALJ Kittinger failed to afford controlling weight to the opinion of Dr. Bethany Crispin, her treating physician. Second, she contends that ...


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