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Hinkle v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London

September 29, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-Motions for Summary Judgment (DE 15, 17, 19) on Plaintiff's appeal of the Acting Commissioner's denial of his application for disability insurance benefits.[1] The matter having been fully briefed by the parties is now ripe for this Court's review.


         In determining whether an individual is disabled, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) uses a five step analysis:

1. An individual who is working and engaging in substantial gainful activity is not disabled, regardless of the claimant's medical condition.
2. An individual who is working but does not have a “severe” impairment which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities is not disabled.
3. If an individual is not working and has a severe impairment which “meets the duration requirement and is listed in appendix 1 or equal to a listed impairment(s)”, then he is disabled regardless of other factors.
4. If a decision cannot be reached based on current work activity and medical facts alone, and the claimant has a severe impairment, then the Secretary reviews the claimant's residual functional capacity and the physical and mental demands of the claimant's previous work. If the claimant is able to continue to do this previous work, then he is not disabled.
5. If the claimant cannot do any work he did in the past because of a severe impairment, then the Secretary considers his residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience to see if he can do other work. If he cannot, the claimant is disabled.

Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Hum. Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(1982)).


         In April 2013, at the age of fifty-one, Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), alleging disability beginning July 1, 2008 (Tr. 197-206). Hinkle has an eleventh grade education, reads at a sixth grade level, and has no past relevant work. This claim was initially denied on June 25, 2013, and upon reconsideration on September 5, 2013. He requested a hearing, which was held and at which he testified on January 7, 2015, in Livonia, Michigan. Hinkle testified at the hearing, and the ALJ ultimately determined that he had the severe impairments of obesity, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, hypertension, and anxiety. After the hearing, the ALJ submitted interrogatories to vocational expert (“VE”) Michael E. Rosko. The ALJ asked the VE to assume a hypothetical individual of Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience with limitations the same as those ultimately determined by the ALJ to be those of Plaintiff (Tr. 284): “claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work . . . except the claimant requires a sit/stand option allowing a change in position every fifteen minutes; should never use ladder[, ] scaffolds[, ] or ropes; should avoid walking on uneven surfaces and should never use foot controls . . . [and is] limited to simple unskilled work without concentration on detail/precision task, multi-tasking, reading, computing, calculating or problem solving; work in a non-public setting with casual infrequent coworker contact and infrequent introduced routine work changes accommodating a sixth grade literacy level.” The VE stated that such an individual could perform the unskilled light jobs of assembler, packager, and sorter (Tr. 285). After receiving the interrogatory responses, the ALJ proffered the evidence to Plaintiff's attorney for the opportunity to comment on the response, to submit additional questions to the vocational expert, and to request a supplemental hearing (Tr. 287-88). Plaintiff's attorney did not respond (Tr. 27). The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied Plaintiff's claim in April 2015 (Tr. 24-46), and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-6), making the ALJ's decision the final agency decision for purposes of judicial review. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.1481, 422.210(a). This appeal followed. The relevant aspects of the record evidence are discussed in turn, below.


         When reviewing a decision made by the ALJ, the Court may not “‘try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence, or decide questions of credibility.'” Ulman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007)). “The ALJ's findings are conclusive as long as they are supported by substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 353 (6th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted). Substantial evidence “‘means such relevant evidence as a ...

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