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Ernst v. Berryhill

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

July 11, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT



         The Commissioner of Social Security denied Terry E. Ernst's (“Ernst”) application for disability insurance benefits. Ernst seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Both Ernst, proceeding pro se, (DN 16) and the Commissioner (DN 19) 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 14).

         Findings of Fact

         Terry Ernst is in his mid-fifties and lives in Cox Creek, Kentucky, in a house with his wife and dog. (Tr. 77). Ernst previously worked as a floor installer and at the parts counter at a Harley Davidson dealership. (Tr. 108). Ernst states that he suffers from lower back pain, arthritis, a stomach ulcer, and gout. (Tr. 79-85). Because of his ailments, Ernst states he has become “a hermit” and has a minimal quality of life. (Tr. 93-94). In September of 2012, Ernst underwent a micro discectomy, which he felt did not help his lower back condition at all. (Tr. 79, 83, 99).

         Ernst applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II, claiming that he became disabled on June 20, 2012, as a result of lower back pain and rheumatoid arthritis. (Tr. 181, 221). His application was denied initially and again on reconsideration. (Tr. 135, 145). Administrative Law Judge William Zuber (“ALJ”) conducted a hearing in Louisville, Kentucky, on February 4, 2014. (Tr. 72, 74). Ernst attended the hearing with his attorney. (Id.). William Harpool, an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. (Id.). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on June 13, 2014. (Tr. 42).

         The ALJ applied the traditional five-step sequential analysis promulgated by the Commissioner, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Kyle v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 609 F.3d 847, 855 (6th Cir. 2010) and found as follows. First, Ernst did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of June 20, 2012, through his date last insured of September 30, 2012. (Tr. 34). Second, through his date last insured, Ernst had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and degenerative disc disease of the left ankle. (Id.). Third, through the date last insured, none of Ernst's impairments or combination of impairments met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment from 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. (Tr. 35). Fourth, through the date last insured, Ernst had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, except “he should be permitted to alternate between sitting and standing every 30 to 45 minutes. In addition, the claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, crouch, crawl, and kneel. He should avoid all exposure to vibration and hazards like dangerous machinery and unprotected heights.” (Tr. 36). Additionally, Ernst is unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. 40). Fifth and finally, considering Ernst's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in the national economy that he could perform through his date last insured. (Tr. 41).

         Ernst appealed the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 27). The Appeals Council declined review. (Tr. 1). At that point, the denial became the final decision of the Commissioner, and Ernst appealed to this Court. (DN 1).

         Conclusions of Law

         A. Standard of Review

         When reviewing the Administrative Law Judge's decision to deny disability benefits, the Court may “not try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor decide questions of credibility.” Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). Instead, the Court's review of the Administrative Law Judge's decision is limited to an inquiry as to whether the Administrative Law Judge's findings were supported by substantial evidence, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 353 (6th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted), and whether the Administrative Law Judge employed the proper legal standards in reaching his conclusion. See 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 v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 692, 695 (6th Cir. 1993).

         B. Analysis

         Ernst is proceeding pro se in this appeal. Pro se documents are to be liberally construed, and Ernst's Fact and Law Summary will be so construed. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S 89, 95, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 167 L.Ed.2d 1081 (2007). After reviewing Ernst's Fact and Law Summary, it appears he is advancing two arguments.

         1. Finding No. 3: Ernst's Severe Impairments

         First, Ernst states that he has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, gout, fibromyalgia, a peptic ulcer, and diverticulitis. (DN 16, at pp. 1, 3). The Commissioner interprets Ernst's statements as to these diagnoses as challenging the ALJ's step two determination that he suffers from the severe impairments of degenerative disc ...

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