United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
L. Banning United States District Judge
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.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
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).
Overview of the Process
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).
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).
The ALJ's Determination
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.
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).
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.
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).
Analysis of Plaintiff's Arguments
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.
The ALJ gave “good reasons” for rejecting the
opinion of ...