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Vonlinger v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

June 13, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT


          David L. Banning United States District Judge

         Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) to obtain judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Court, having reviewed the record and the parties' dispositive motions, and for the reasons set forth herein, hereby reverses and remands the decision of the Commissioner.


         On October 15, 2012, Plaintiff Helen Vonlinger protectively applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) payments, alleging disability beginning on February 1, 2013. (Tr. 12). Plaintiff's application was denied initially on September 3, 2013, and again on reconsideration on December 6, 2013. Id. At Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was conducted on March 17, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Don C. Paris. Id. On April 9, 2015, ALJ Paris issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits. (Tr. 12-24). The decision became final when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 19, 2016. (Tr. 1-7). Plaintiff filed the instant action on August 24, 2016. (Doc. # 1). The matter has culminated in cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for adjudication. (Docs. # 10 & 12).


         A. Overview of the Process

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is restricted to determining whether it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards. See Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 729 (6th Cir. 2007). “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.” Cutlip v. Sec'y Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). Courts are not to conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or make credibility determinations. Id. Rather, a court is required to affirm the Commissioner's decision, as long as it is supported by substantial evidence, even if it might have decided the case differently. Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's findings must be affirmed, even if there is evidence favoring Plaintiff's side. Listenbee v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 345, 349 (6th Cir. 1988). Similarly, an administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported the opposite conclusion. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 780, 781-82 (6th Cir. 1996).

         To determine disability, the ALJ conducts a five-step analysis. “If, at any step during the process, it is determined that the claimant is or is not disabled, the process is terminated.” Despins v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 257 F. App'x 923, 928-29 (6th Cir. 2007). Step One considers whether the claimant can still perform substantial gainful activity; Step Two, whether any of the claimant's impairments, alone or in combination, are “severe”; Step Three, whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal a listing in the Listing of Impairments; Step Four, whether the claimant can still perform her past relevant work; and Step Five, whether a significant number of other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. With the last step, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the Commissioner to identify “jobs in the economy that accommodate [Plaintiff's] residual functional capacity.” See Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003); see also Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).

         B. The ALJ's Determination

         ALJ Paris began the sequential evaluation by determining at Step One that the Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 1, 2013, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 14). At Step Two, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had three “severe” impairments: (1) degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, (2) depressive disorder, and (3) anxiety disorder. Id.

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff does not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, listed in or medically equivalent to an impairment in the Listings of Impairments. (Tr. 16 (citing 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1)). In doing so, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease did not satisfy the criteria of Listing 1.04. (Tr. 16). The ALJ further found that Plaintiff did not meet the requirements for mental disorders under Listing 12 because “the claimant did not experience marked limitations in the functional areas” or “[any] episodes of decompensation.” (Tr. 17).

         At Step Four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work activity with the following additional restrictions:

[T]he claimant can lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; can stand and walk for six hours in an eight hour workday; sit for six hours in an eight hour workday; pushing and pulling with the upper left extremity is limited to frequently; can frequently climb stairs and ramps; should never climb ladders or ropes; frequently stooping, kneeling, and crouching; never crawling; limited overhead work with the right upper extremity; limited handling with the left hand and left fingers; limited to frequent overhead reaching, handling, and fingering with the left hand due pain and numbness in the left upper extremity; and should avoid concentrated exposure to vibrations and all hazards, such as dangerous machinery. The claimant also has a mental impairment; however, she is able to sustain concentration; and can do tasks within physical tolerations and skill with regular breaks and supervision; has the ability to sustain for extended periods, but should be able to complete simple tasks for six to eight hours in an eight hour period at an appropriate pace and sustain this limit across days and weeks; the claimant can relate and interact appropriately with co-workers; can cooperate with routine changes in task; can accept other workers and accept feedback generally; and the claimant can adapt to modest task demands in a workplace.

(Tr. 17-18). Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a cake decorator, stocking clerk, cashier, or deli worker. (Tr. 22).

         Accordingly, the ALJ proceeded to the final step of the sequential evaluation. At Step Five, the ALJ found that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 23). The ALJ 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 a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff's vocational profile and RFC could perform occupations such as parking lot attendant (500 jobs in Kentucky, 52, 000 jobs nationally) and recreational attendant (1, 100 jobs in Kentucky, 128, 000 jobs nationally). Id. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not under a “disability, ” as defined by the Social Security Act. (Tr. 24).

         C. Analysis of Plaintiff's Arguments

         Plaintiff advances five arguments on appeal. (Doc. # 10-1). Plaintiff's first four arguments relate to the weight the ALJ gave to the opinions of various medical and non-medical sources. Plaintiff complains that the ALJ failed to give sufficient weight to the opinions of her treating physician, a non-treating psychologist, and her former manager at Wal-Mart, and that the ALJ gave too much weight to the opinions of the state agency physicians who reviewed her record. Id. at 7-11. In addition, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC and the corresponding hypothetical posed to the VE were ambiguous and failed to incorporate her limitations and therefore cannot support a finding of no disability. Id. at 11-14.

         1. The ALJ gave “good reasons” for rejecting the opinion of ...

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