United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London
K. CALDWELL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT CHIEF JUDGE
Thomas applied to the Social Security Administration for
disability and disability-insurance benefits. The agency
denied her application. Thomas now seeks judicial review of
that decision, arguing that the agency's Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in reviewing the evidence
and concluding that Thomas was not disabled. But substantial
evidence in the record supports the agency's final
decision. The Court must therefore grant summary judgment to
the Commissioner, and deny summary judgment to Thomas.
Thomas is a 57-year-old woman from Wooten, Kentucky. Tr. at
30-31. After graduating from college with a two-year degree,
Thomas worked as a school secretary. Id. at 921. But
in 2013, she stopped working because of lower-back pain and
bone deformities from the waist down. Id. at 154.
Thomas now suffers from back pain, degenerative joint
disease, hypertension, depression, and anxiety. Id.
at 16-17. On August 5, 2013, Thomas applied for
disability-insurance benefits, alleging an onset date of May
31, 2013. Id. at 132. A few months later, the Social
Security Administration (“SSA”) held an
administrative hearing to evaluate Thomas's application.
Id. at 13. ALJ Bonnie Kittinger presided over the
hearings and reviewed all of the evidence that Thomas
submitted about her medical conditions. Id. at
28-53. Thomas, represented by counsel, and Ms. Summer
Gawthrop, a vocational expert, testified at the hearing.
the hearing, ALJ Kittinger applied the traditional five-step
analysis for Social Security decisions. See id.;
see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 404.920;
Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474
(6th Cir. 2003). In that analysis, the ALJ made several
findings: First, Thomas had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since May 31, 2013, the alleged onset date
of her disability. Tr. at 15. Second, Thomas had two severe
impairments: osteoarthritis and degenerative lumbar disc
disease. Id. at 15-16. And, although Thomas was
diagnosed with depression and anxiety, her mental limitations
were not severe. Id. Third, Thomas had the residual
functional capacity to perform light work- but she was
limited in her ability to climb stairs, kneel, stoop, and
withstand extreme temperatures. Id. at 18. Finally,
even though Thomas could not return to serving as a school
secretary as she had in the past, she could perform a
less-demanding secretary job, as it is generally performed.
Id. at 20.
on those findings, the ALJ determined that Thomas was not
disabled as defined under the Social Security Act.
Id. at 20. The agency's Appeals Council later
declined review, making the ALJ's determination the final
decision of the Social Security Commissioner. Id. at
1-5. That decision is now ripe for judicial review.
Court conducts a limited review of the Commissioner's
decision under the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). The Court may only evaluate whether the ALJ applied
the correct legal standard and made factual findings that are
supported by substantial evidence in the record.
Id.; see also Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.
Admin., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009) (articulating
the same standard for judicial review by the court of
appeals). Substantial evidence means “more than a
scintilla of evidence” that “a reasonable mind
might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25
F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). In assessing the evidence and
the ALJ's decision, the Court cannot “try the case
de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor
decide questions of credibility.” Id.; see
Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007).
makes only one argument here: that ALJ Kittinger's
conclusion that Thomas could return to secretarial work is
“unsupported by the evidence of the record.”
See R. 12 at 6. She then points to the opinions of
three people that, in her view, suggest that she is totally
disabled and therefore unable to work: Dr. Alicia Pearce, a
consultative examiner; Ms. Leanne Scott, a licensed
psychological associate; and Ms. Summer Gawthrop, the
vocational expert. See Id. The Court will address
the findings of each in turn.
Alicia Pearce. Thomas first asserts that Dr.
Pearce's medical opinions show that she cannot work
because she “would reasonably have trouble sitting or
standing for extended periods.” Id. Indeed,
Dr. Pearce so opined. But she also reported that Thomas's
physical exam was “otherwise unremarkable” and
that she had “little limitations” for work
activities. Tr. at 914. Moreover, another doctor, Dr. Rebecca
Luking, reported that Thomas could perform medium-exertion
work and could sit for about six hours at a time-albeit with
a few postural limitations. Id. at 78-81. The ALJ
considered and weighed all of that evidence and decided to
adopt an even “less demanding range of light
work” than Dr. Luking recommended. Id. at 19.
Leanne Scott. Thomas next turns to the opinion of Ms.
Scott, a psychological associate who examined Thomas under a
psychologist's supervision. R. 12 at 6. Ms. Scott
diagnosed Thomas with a depressive disorder and opined that
she had severe limitations in her ability to “tolerate
stress and the pressure of day-to-day employment” and
to “sustain attention and concentration” in
performing “simple repetitive tasks.” Tr. at 922.
On the other hand, Dr. Cole, who conducted a different
examination, found that Thomas had no symptoms of either
depression or anxiety and concluded that she “d[id] not
require psychological treatment[.]” Id. at
reviewing that evidence, the ALJ found Ms. Scott's
assessment to be “sharply at odds” with Dr.
Cole's findings and the fact that Thomas had not pursued
mental-health counseling. Id. at 16. He accordingly
afforded more weight to Dr. Cole's opinion, considering
his vast training and experience and the consistency of his
report with Thomas's medical history. The ALJ's
decision to rely more on Dr. Cole's opinion than Ms.
Scott's was a decision about credibility. And Thomas does
not suggest that the ALJ made that decision unreasonably; nor
does the evidence suggest that was the case. Thus, this Court
will not upend the ALJ's analysis. See Rogers v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec'y, 486 F.3d 234, 247-48 (6th
Cir. 2007) (explaining that a reviewing court will only
reconsider an ALJ's credibility determination when it is
unreasonable or unsupported by the record).
Summer Gawthorp. Finally, Thomas highlights Ms.
Gawthorp's testimony that Thomas could not perform her
past work as a school secretary. R. 12 at 6. At the hearing,
the ALJ asked Ms. Gawthrop a series of questions, including
whether a hypothetical person with Thomas's limitations
could perform secretarial work. Tr. at 49-50. Ms. Gawthorp
testified that the hypothetical person could perform
secretarial work, which is typically sedentary in exertion,
but could not do so at the higher level that Thomas had
performed it in the past. Id.
ultimately concluded the same about Thomas specifically: that
she could not return to her exact job as a school secretary,
which required above-average exertion, but that she could
still perform the typical, more sedentary secretarial work.
Id. at 20. That meant, under the SSA's
regulations, that Thomas was not disabled. Id.;
see 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(f) (explaining that the SSA
will only find a claimant disabled if her impairment prevents
her from performing some work that exists in the ...