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Warner v. Berryhill

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

December 13, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT


          David L. Bunning, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Court, having reviewed the record, will affirm the Commissioner's decision, as it is supported by substantial evidence.


         On September 3, 2013, Plaintiff Joe Warner filed an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”), alleging disability beginning on February 25, 2013. (Tr. 194-198, 199-206). Specifically, Plaintiff alleged that he was limited in his ability to work due to: (1) a bulging disc in his neck, bone spurs, and numbness in his arms; (2) shoulder pain; and (3) rheumatoid arthritis. (Tr. 228).

         Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 97-106, 107-119). At Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was conducted on May 11, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Bonnie Kittinger. (Tr. 51-86). On December 4, 2015, ALJ Kittinger ruled that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 10-37). This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on December 29, 2016. (Tr. 1-8).

         On February 22, 2017, Plaintiff filed the instant action. (Doc. # 1). This matter has culminated in cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for the Court's review. (Docs. # 10 and 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 Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). “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.” Id. Courts are not to conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or make credibility determinations. Id. Rather, the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision, provided it is supported by substantial evidence, even if the Court might have decided the case differently. See 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).

         The ALJ, in determining disability, conducts a five-step analysis. Step One considers whether the claimant is still performing substantial gainful activity; Step Two, whether any of the claimant's impairments are “severe”; Step Three, whether the impairments meet or equal a listing in the Listing of Impairments; Step Four, whether the claimant can still perform his past relevant work; and Step Five, whether significant numbers of other jobs exist in the national economy which the claimant can perform. As to the last step, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the Commissioner. See Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003); Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).

         B. The ALJ's Determination

         At Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged onset date, February 25, 2013, through his date last insured. (Tr. 15). At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had two severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and inflammatory/rheumatoid arthritis. (Tr. 15). The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff had the following non-severe, minimally limiting, impairments: hypertension; a sleep-related breathing disorder; obesity; and periodic upper extremity numbness and pain. (Tr. 15). At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that “meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1." (Tr. 17). Specifically, the ALJ considered Listing 1.04A and found that the evidence does not show that the Plaintiff “has experienced a spinal disorder resulting in a compromise of a nerve root or the spinal cord, with nerve root compression, spinal arachnoiditis, or spinal stenosis with accompanying ineffective ambulation.” (Tr. 17). The ALJ also considered Listing 14.09 and found that the evidence presented in support of allegations of inflammatory/rheumatoid arthritis did not show any of the listed symptoms. (Tr. 17).

         At Step Four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with the exertional and non-exertional limitations as follows:

[T]he claimant can lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally, and ten pounds frequently. He can stand/walk six hours, and sit at least six hours, out of an eight-hour workday, and sit a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday. He occasionally can climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He should not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He should avoid concentrated ...

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