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Pippin v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Bowling Green Division

September 18, 2017

BETH E. PIPPIN 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 Beth E. Pippin ("Plaintiff") seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Both the Plaintiff (DN 15) and Defendant (DN 18) have filed a Fact and Law Summary. For the reasons that follow, judgment is granted for the Commissioner.

         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 11). By Order entered March 29, 2017 (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

         On October 10, 1996, Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the Act) (Tr. 89).[1] The state agency denied Plaintiff's application at the initial and reconsideration levels (Id.). Following an administrative hearing on April 9, 1998, the Administrative Law Judge issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled (Id.). Plaintiff filed a request for review of the Administrative Law Judge's decision (Id.).

         While Plaintiff's request for review was pending before the Appeals Council, she filed a subsequent application for SSI on May 21, 1998 (Tr. 89). The state agency issued a favorable determination in September 1998, finding that Plaintiff had been disabled since May 21, 1998 (Id.). Thus, Plaintiff became eligible for SSI benefits on June 1, 1998 (Id.).

         On December 21, 1999, the Appeals Council remanded Plaintiff's October 10, 1996 application to an Administrative Law Judge for further consideration (Tr. 89). The remand order indicated that Plaintiff's award of disability in her subsequent application was supported by substantial evidence that amounted to new and material evidence relating to the period at issue in the first application (Id.). On remand, the Administrative Law Judge considered the closed period between October 10, 1996 (the original alleged onset date) and May 31, 1998, the day before Plaintiff became eligible for SSI (Id.). In a decision dated June 16, 2000, the Administrative Law Judge issued a favorable decision finding that Plaintiff was entitled to SSI benefits between October 1996 and May 1998 (Tr. 89-93). More specifically, at the second step the Administrative Law Judge found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative joint disease, a seizure disorder, a depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, and borderline intellectual functioning (Tr. 92). At the fourth step, the Administrative Law Judge determined that Plaintiff had the following residual functional capacity during the relevant period:

She was mildly limited in her ability to understand, retain, and follow simple instructions. She had moderate difficulties sustaining attention and concentration to perform repetitive tasks. Her ability to relate to co-workers and others was impaired. Her capacity to tolerate the stress and pressure of daily work activity was moderately to severely impaired.

(Tr. 92-93). The Administrative Law Judge found that Plaintiff was unable to perform the requirements of her past relevant work during the relevant period (Tr. 93). At the fifth step, the Administrative Law Judge considered Plaintiff's age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity (Id.). The Administrative Law judge concluded due to Plaintiff's non-exertional limitations she could not make an adjustment to any work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy during the relevant period and, therefore, reached a finding of disabled under the medical-vocational guidelines (Id.). However, Plaintiff reports that her SSI benefits ceased in 2005 when her husband apparently began receiving Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) (DN 15 PageID # 1568 n. 1).

         On May 6, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB (Tr. 15, 285-86). Plaintiff alleged that she became disabled on September 30, 2013, as a result of epilepsy, blood clot in the right leg, migraine headaches, nerve damage in the head, sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, back disorders, emphysema, allergies, edema, acid reflux, abdominal pain, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and obesity (Tr. 15, 421-22). Administrative Law Judge Candace A. McDaniel ("ALJ") conducted a video hearing from Louisville, Kentucky (Tr. 15, 37-39). Plaintiff and her attorney, Richard Burchett, participated from Bowling Green, Kentucky (Id.). William R. Harpool also participated and testified as an impartial vocational expert (Id.).

         In a decision dated July 11, 2016, the ALJ evaluated this adult disability claim pursuant to the five-step sequential evaluation process promulgated by the Commissioner (Tr. 15-26). Notably, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018 (Tr. 17). At the first step, the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 30, 2013 the alleged onset date (Id.). Next, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine; obesity; degenerative osteoarthritis of the knees with a history of total arthroplasty surgery bilaterally; a seizure disorder; a depressive disorder; and an anxiety disorder (Id.). Additionally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's deep vein thrombosis in the right leg, cholecystitis, hysterectomy, and fibromyalgia are “non-severe” impairments (Tr. 17-18). 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. 18). The ALJ specifically found that plaintiff did not meet or medically equal the criteria for listings 1.03, 1.04, 11.02, 11.03, 12.04, and 12.06 (Tr. 18-20).

         At the fourth step, the ALJ made the following finding 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 a range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) in that the claimant can lift and carry up to 10 pounds occasionally, lift and carry a little less than 10 pounds such as 8 pounds frequently, sit for six of eight hours, and stand or walk for three out of eight hours; no more than occasional pushing and pulling with the upper extremities as well as no more than occasional pushing and pulling with the lower extremities; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffold [sic]; only occasional climbing of ramps or stairs, occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling; able to balance when walking on level ground but need to avoid uneven or slippery surfaces, and would need to use a cane when ambulating for distances of more than 10 or 15 feet; no exposure to hazardous work settings including unprotected heights, operation of machinery with open and exposed moving parts or gears that do not stop with loss of human contact or control, no commercial driving, and no exposure to large bodies of water; avoid exposure to concentrate [sic] levels of vibrations, and concentrated levels of fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, wetness and humidity, and extreme temperatures of cold or heat; is able to understand, remember and carry out simple routine instructions; has adequate attention and concentration for two hours [sic] over an eight hour workday, interact with coworkers and supervisors frequently, with no more than occasional contact with the public not incidental to work activities, and is able to adapt to routine changes in such a setting.

(Tr. 20). Relying on testimony from the vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work (Tr. 24).

         The ALJ proceeded to the fifth step where he considered Plaintiffs residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience as well as testimony from the vocational expert (Tr. 25-26). The ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing a significant number of jobs that exist in the national economy (Tr. 26). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been under a Adisability, " as defined in the Social Security Act, from September 30, 2013 through the date of the decision, July 11, 2016 (Id.).

         Plaintiff timely filed a request for the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision (Tr. 8-10). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs 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 ...

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