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Johnson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Bowling Green Division

May 26, 2017

KATHY J. JOHNSON PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          Greg N. Stivers, Judge

         This matter is before the Court upon Plaintiff's Objection to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation to Affirm the ALJ's Decision (DN 32). For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's objections are OVERRULED and the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (DN 31) is ADOPTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Kathy Johnson (“Johnson”) filed an application for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits on April 5, 2012, alleging that learning difficulties, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), emphysema, spots on lungs, spinal arthritis, depression, and anxiety rendered her disabled as of March 10, 2012. (Administrative R. 297 [hereinafter R.]). Johnson's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. (R. 152-55, 157-62). Johnson participated in a video hearing before Administrative Law Judge Patrick B. Kimberlin III (the “ALJ”) on March 19, 2014. (R. 43). Subsequently, the ALJ issued a decision on April 24, 2014, in which he found that Johnson had not been under a “disability, ” as defined in the Social Security Act, from March 10, 2012, through the date of the decision, and denied her claims. (R. 37).

         In reaching his decision, the ALJ evaluated Johnson's claims under the five-step sequential evaluation process promulgated by the Commissioner. (R. 24-42). At the first step, the ALJ found that Johnson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 10, 2012, the alleged onset date. (R. 29). Second, the ALJ determined that Johnson's COPD, obesity, generalized osteoarthritis, and depression were “severe” impairments within the meaning of the regulations, but that her GERD and headaches were “non-severe” impairments. (R. 29-30). Third, the ALJ concluded that Johnson did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equated to one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1. (R. 30-31). Fourth, the ALJ found that Johnson had the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced range of light work. (R. 31). More specifically, he found that Johnson could have only occasional exposure to fumes, gases, noxious odors, and temperature extremes. (R. 31). The ALJ also determined that Johnson's mental impairments limited her to simple and routine job duties and instructions. (R. 31). Furthermore, relying on testimony from the vocational expert, the ALJ found that Johnson was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (R. 36). At the fifth step, the ALJ found that, in light of Johnson's residual functional capacity, age, education, past work experience, and testimony from the vocational expert, Johnson was capable of performing a significant number of jobs that exist in the national economy; therefore, he concluded that she was not disabled. (R. 36-37).

         Johnson filed a request for review, which the Appeals Council denied. (R. 1-7, 23). Subsequently, Johnson filed suit in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (Compl., DN 1). The matter was referred to the Magistrate Judge, who issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) recommending that judgment be entered in favor of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”).[1] (Soc. Sec. Order, DN 21; R. & R. 14, DN 31). Johnson filed objections to the R&R, and the Commissioner responded. (Pl.'s Obj. R. & R., DN 32; Def.'s Resp. Pl.'s Obj., DN 33). This matter is ripe for adjudication.

         II. JURISDICTION

         The Court has jurisdiction to examine the record that was before the Commissioner on the date of the Commissioner's final decision and to enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing that decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The parts of a Magistrate Judge's R&R to which objections are raised are reviewed by the district judge de novo. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). This differs from the standard applied to the Commissioner's decision. That decision, rendered by an ALJ, is reviewed to determine “whether it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.” Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted). Evidence that a “reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion” is substantial evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citation omitted). It is “more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance . . . .” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241 (internal quotation marks omitted) (citation omitted). Where substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, a court is obliged to affirm. Siterlet v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 823 F.2d 918, 920 (6th Cir. 1987) (citation omitted). A court should not attempt to second-guess the factfinder with respect to conflicts of evidence or questions of credibility. Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Johnson raises the following objections to the R&R: (1) the Magistrate Judge incorrectly found no error regarding the environmental restrictions imposed by the ALJ; (2) the Magistrate Judge incorrectly found there was no error in the ALJ overlooking Johnson's medication changes and increasing obesity; (3) the Magistrate Judge disregarded the ALJ's failure to consider functional reports and third party statements concerning Johnson's literacy; and (4) the Magistrate Judge erred in upholding the ALJ's evaluation of Johnson's credibility. These objections are addressed in turn.

         A. Environmental Restrictions

         In determining Johnson's residual functional capacity, the ALJ found that Johnson's COPD limited her to occasional exposure to fumes, gases, noxious odors, and temperature extremes. (R. 31). According to Johnson, the ALJ impermissibly relied on his own lay opinion in reaching this environmental limitation because there was no record evidence contrary to the findings of state agency physician Carlos X. Hernandez, who concluded that Johnson should avoid all exposure to fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poor ventilation, as well as even moderate exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold, humidity, and ...


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