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Shields v. Berryhill

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

May 11, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Darlena Shields 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 May 17, 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). [TR 116-22]. She also protectively filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) on that date. [TR 123-43]. In both applications, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning March 17, 2012. [TR 116-22, 123-43]. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. [TR 51-67, 68-71, 75-77]. On September 16, 2015, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Roger L. Reynolds held an administrative hearing at Plaintiff's request. [TR 89, 549-86]. ALJ Reynolds issued a written decision, denying Plaintiff's claim for benefits, on October 23, 2015. [TR 16-30].

         At Step One of the disability determination process, ALJ Reynolds found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. [TR 18]. At Step Two, he concluded that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”) with continued nicotine abuse; congestive heart failure; coronary artery disease, rule out cardiac syndrome X; degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with disc bulges/protrusions at the L3/4 and L4/5 levels and grade I spondylolisthesis of L5 on S1; non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus; degenerative joint disease of the right knee; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; obstructive sleep apnea; obesity; anxiety disorder NOS (not otherwise specified); and major depressive disorder. [TR 18-19].

         At Step Three, ALJ Reynolds 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 19-]. In reaching this conclusion, ALJ Reynolds found that “the medical evidence does not prove the severity of nerve root compromise, or ambulation or manipulative difficulties, required to meet or equal a listing in Section 1.00 and following, which discuss musculoskeletal impairments. [TR 19]. He also concluded that Plaintiff did not meet Listing 3.02 (COPD) because she did not “establish qualifying values in sophisticated pulmonary function or spirometric tests in measuring the degree of: obstructive pulmonary disease (FEV1), restrictive ventilator disease (FVC), or chronic impairment of gas exchange.” [TR 20]. Plaintiff did not meet the requirements of Listing 3.10 (sleeping disorders) because she did not “prove either a cor pulmonale (failure of the right side of the heart) secondary to chronic pulmonary hypertension (Listing 3.09) or an organic mental disorder (Listing 12.02).” [Id.].

         ALJ Reynolds then considered the listings under Section 4.00 and following, which pertain to cardiovascular impairments. [TR 20]. He found that the record “does not contain the necessary symptom complexes, clinical signs, functional tests, or diagnostic study results which would invoke any of the cardiovascular listings.” [Id.]. ALJ Reynolds next discussed Listing 11.14 (pheripheral neuropathies), concluding that Plaintiff did not have “disorganization of motor function in the extremities of the magnitude contemplated in this listing.” [Id.]. Finally, he determined that Plaintiff's mental impairments did not meet or equal Listing 12.04 (affective disorders) and Listing 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders) because she only had mild restrictions in activities of daily living and moderate difficulties with social functioning and concentration, but had not experienced any extended episodes of decompensation.[2] [TR 20-21].

         Before proceeding to Step Four, ALJ Reynolds noted that Plaintiff had filed a previous application for benefits, which was denied by ALJ Gloria York on March 16, 2012. [TR 24]. He observed that her findings would preclude him from making a different finding on Plaintiff's subsequent claim unless there was new evidence or changed circumstances. [Id.]. He then explained that “new medical evidence establishes the existence of additional severe impairments and the residual functional capacity merits limitations in addition to those imposed by ALJ York.” [Id.]. Having surveyed that evidence, ALJ Reynolds determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c) and § 416.967(b). [TR 21-22]. He explained:

She cannot climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds, but she can occasionally climb stairs or ramps. She can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. The claimant cannot perform aerobic activities such as running or jumping. She cannot work with her hands over the head. The claimant cannot operate foot pedal controls. She should avoid exposure to concentrated dust, gases, smoke, fumes, temperature extremes, and excess humidity. She should avoid concentrated vibration or industrial hazards. The claimant requires entry-level work with simple repetitive procedures. She can tolerate only occasional changes in work routines. The claimant should work in an object-oriented environment with only occasional and casual contact with coworkers, supervisors or the general public.

[Id.]. He then found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work at Step Four. [TR 28]. However, he noted that transferability of job skills was not material to the disability determination because “using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is ‘not disabled, ' whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills.” [Id.].

         Nevertheless, ALJ Reynolds proceeded to the final step of the sequential evaluation. [TR 28-30]. At Step Five, he determined that there were a significant number of other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. [TR 29]. ALJ Reynolds 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 light unskilled work as an inspector (4, 200 Kentucky/300, 000 nationally), hand packer (3, 200 Kentucky/195, 000 nationally), or assembler (4, 900 Kentucky/350, 000 nationally). [Id.]. Such an individual could also find sedentary unskilled work as an inspector (3, 800 Kentucky/185, 000 nationally), a final assembler (3, 700 Kentucky/195, 000 nationally), or hand packer (3, 400 Kentucky/200, 000 nationally). [Id.]. Based on the testimony of the VE, ALJ Reynolds found that Plaintiff was capable of making a successful adjustment to other work. [Id.]. Thus, he concluded that Plaintiff was not under a “disability, ” as defined by the Social Security Act, from March 17, 2012, the alleged onset date, through the date of the administrative decision. [Id.].

         ALJ Reynolds's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on July 21, 2016. [TR 9-11]. Plaintiff filed the instant action on September 22, 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 Reynolds's administrative decision is not supported by substantial evidence because he improperly weighed opinions from medical sources and effectively substituted his own judgment for those opinions, resulting in an inaccurate RFC assessment. The Court will address each of these arguments in turn.


         In order to determine whether the plaintiff is able to perform past relevant work, the ALJ must first “evaluat[e] the medical evidence and the claimant's testimony to form an assessment of [his or her] residual functional capacity.” Webb v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 368 F.3d 629, 633 (6th Cir. 2004) (internal quotations omitted). The RFC assessment is a determination of how the claimant's “impairments, and any related symptoms, such as pain, … cause physical and mental limitations that affect what [he or she] can do in a work setting.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). It is “based on all of the relevant medical and other evidence” in the case record, including “statements about what [the claimant] can still do that have been provided by medical sources, ” as well as descriptions of the claimant's limitations that have been provided by the claimant and his or her family ...

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