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Johnson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Owensboro Division

June 6, 2017

REBECCA L. JOHNSON PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER.

          H. Brent Brennenstuhl United States Magistrate Judge.

         BACKGROUND

         Before the Court is the complaint (DN 1) of Rebecca L. Johnson (“Plaintiff”) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Both the Plaintiff (DN 11) and Defendant (DN 16) have filed a Fact and Law Summary.

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, the parties have consented to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge conducting all further proceedings in this case, including issuance of a memorandum opinion and entry of judgment, with direct review by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in the event an appeal is filed (DN 9). By Order entered December 2, 2006 (DN 10), the parties were notified that oral arguments would not be held unless a written request therefor was filed and granted. No such request was filed.

         FINDINGS OF FACT

         Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits on June 10, 2013 (Tr. 22, 173-79). Plaintiff alleged that she became disabled on August 1, 2012, as a result of chronic low back pain, sciatica, high blood pressure, depression, high cholesterol, hypothyroidism, and coronary artery disease (Tr. 22, 204). Administrative Law Judge Scott T. Morris (“ALJ”) conducted a video hearing from Paducah, Kentucky on January 16, 2015 (Tr. 22, 42-43). Plaintiff and her attorney, Sara Martin, participated from Owensboro, Kentucky (Id.). Kenneth Boaz testified as an impartial vocational expert during the video hearing (Id.).

         In a decision dated April 15, 2015 the ALJ evaluated this adult disability claim pursuant to the five-step sequential evaluation process promulgated by the Commissioner (Tr. 22-36). At the first step, the ALJ found Plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period August 1, 2012 through June 4, 2013 (Tr. 24). However, the ALJ found that there has been a continuous 12-month period during which Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity (Tr. 25). The ALJ's remaining findings addressed the period that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity (Id.).

         At the second step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: coronary artery disease and degenerative disc disease (Tr. 25). Notably, at the second step, the ALJ also determined that Plaintiff's dysthymic and pain disorders are “non-severe” impairments within the meaning of the regulations (Tr. 25-27).

         At the third step, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1 (Tr. 27). More specifically, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff does not meet or equal the requirements of any of the impairments within listing sections 1.00 and 4.00 (Id.).

         At the fourth step, the ALJ made the following findings with regard to Plaintiff's residual functional capacity:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). Specifically, the claimant can lift or carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and up to 10 pounds frequently; sit for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday; and can stand or walk up to six hours in an eight-hour day. The claimant must alternate between sitting and standing every hour for approximately five minutes before returning to the alternate position. She can push or pull up to the same limits as lifting and carrying. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can frequently balance, but only occasionally stoop, crouch and crawl. She can have occasional exposure to unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, extreme cold/heat, humidity/witness, vibration, as well as fumes, odors, dusts, and pulmonary irritants.

(Tr. 27). Relying on testimony from the vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work (Tr. 34).

         The ALJ proceeded to the fifth step where he considered Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience as well as testimony from the vocational expert (Tr. 34-35). The ALJ found that prior to February 24, 2015, Plaintiff was a person closely approaching advanced age (age 50-54) under the regulations (Tr. 34, Finding No. 8). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(d). The ALJ also found that on February 24, 2015, Plaintiff became 55 years old and she became a person of advanced age (age 55 or older) under the regulations (Tr. 34, Finding No. 8). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(e).

         The ALJ found that prior to February 24, 2015, Plaintiff was capable of performing a significant number of jobs that exist in the national economy (Tr. 34-35). The ALJ determined that beginning on February 24, 2015, there are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform (Tr. 35). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to February 24, 2015, but she became disabled as of that date, and has continued to be disabled through the date of the decision (Id.).

         Plaintiff timely filed a request for the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision (Tr. 15-16). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 1-4).

         CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

         Standard of Review

         Review by the Court is limited to determining whether the findings set forth in the final decision of the Commissioner are supported by “substantial evidence, ” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Cotton v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 692, 695 (6th Cir. 1993); Wyatt v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992), and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Landsaw v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 803 F.2d 211, 213 (6th Cir. 1986). “Substantial evidence exists when a reasonable mind could accept the evidence as adequate to support the challenged conclusion, even if that evidence could support a decision the other way.” Cotton, 2 F.3d at 695 (quoting Casey v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 987 F.2d 1230, 1233 (6th Cir. 1993)). In reviewing a case for substantial evidence, the Court “may not try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in evidence, nor decide questions of credibility.” Cohen v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 964 F.2d 524, 528 (6th Cir. 1992) (quoting Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984)).

         As previously mentioned, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 1-4). At that point, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.955(b), 404.981, 422.210(a); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(h) (finality of the Commissioner's decision). Thus, the Court will be reviewing the decision of the ALJ, not the Appeals Council, and the evidence that was in the administrative record when the ALJ rendered the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Cline v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 96 F.3d 146, 148 (6th Cir. 1996); Cotton v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 692, 695-696 (6th Cir. 1993).

         The Commissioner's Sequential Evaluation Process The Social Security Act authorizes payment of Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income to persons with disabilities. 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. (Title II Disability Insurance Benefits), 1381 et seq. (Title XVI Supplemental Security Income). The term “disability” is defined as an

[I]nability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve (12) months.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) (Title II), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (Title XVI); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a); Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214 (2002); Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990).

         The Commissioner has promulgated regulations setting forth a five-step sequential evaluation process for evaluating a disability claim. See “Evaluation of disability in general, ” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. In summary, the evaluation proceeds as follows:

1) Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity?
2) Does the claimant have a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that satisfies the duration requirement and significantly limits his or her ability to do basic work activities?
3) Does the claimant have an impairment that meets or medically equals the criteria of a listed impairment ...

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