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Nichols v. Berryhill

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

January 8, 2018

JAMI NICHOLS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          HENRY R. WILHOIT, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff has brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) to challenge a final decision of the Defendant denying Plaintiffs application for disability insurance benefits. The Court having reviewed the record in this case and the dispositive motions filed by the parties, and being otherwise sufficiently advised, for the reasons set forth herein, finds that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed her current application for disability insurance benefits in June 2013, alleging disability beginning in September 2011, due to "asthma, incontinence, flailed chest/rib, knee pain, impaired vision in the left eye [and] depression" (Tr. 188). This application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Thereafter, upon request by Plaintiff, an administrative hearing was conducted by Administrative Law Judge Jonathon Stanley (hereinafter "ALJ"), wherein Plaintiff, accompanied by counsel, testified. At the hearing, Robert Piper, a vocational expert (hereinafter "VE"), also testified.

         At the hearing, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.920, the ALJ performed the following five-step sequential analysis in order to determine whether the Plaintiff was disabled:

Step 1: If the claimant is performing substantial gainful work, he is not disabled.
Step 2: If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work, his impairments) must be severe before he can be found to be disabled based upon the requirements in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b).
Step 3: If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work and has a severe impairment (or impairments) that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months, and his impairments (or impairments) meets or medically equals a listed impairment contained in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4, the claimant is disabled without further inquiry.
Step 4: If the claimant's impairment (or impairments) does not prevent him from doing his past relevant work, he is not disabled.
Step 5: Even if the claimant's impairment or impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work, if other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that accommodates his residual functional capacity and vocational factors, he is not disabled.

         The ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled Plaintiff was 56 years old at the time of the alleged onset of disability. She has a Master's degree in counseling and past relevant work as a counselor and educational program director at Eastern Kentucky University (Tr. 189).

         At Step 1 of the sequential analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of disability (Tr. 21).

         The ALJ then determined, at Step 2, that Plaintiff suffers from obesity; degenerative joint disease of the knees; left ankle and foot pain; asthma; and a variety of eye-related impairments, including choroidal neovascularization (abnormal blood vessel growth), progressive degenerative myopia, and cataracts, which he found to be "severe" within the meaning of the Regulations (Tr. 22).

         At Step 3, the ALJ found that Plaintiffs impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments (Tr. 25). In doing so, the ALJ specifically considered Listing 1.00 (Tr. 25).

         The ALJ further found that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work (Tr. 27) and also determined that she has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with the following restrictions: occasional pushing and pulling using the lower extremities bilaterally; occasional climbing of stairs and ramps, but never of ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; frequent reaching overhead bilaterally; frequent reading of computer screens and fine print and handling of small objects; no concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, pulmonary irritants, or vibration; and ability to avoid ordinary hazards in the workplace, but no work at unprotected heights or around hazards such as heavy equipment. (Tr. 25).

         Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not to be disabled.

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review and adopted the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner . Plaintiff thereafter filed this civil action seeking a reversal of the Commissioner's decision. Both parties have filed Motions for Summary Judgment and this matter is ripe for decision.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         The essential issue on appeal to this Court is whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. "Substantial evidence" is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion;" it is based on the record as a whole and must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight. Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the reviewing Court must affirm. Kirk v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 461 F.2d 524, 535 (6th Cir. 1981), cert, denied, 461 U.S. 957 (1983). "The court may not try the case de novo nor resolve conflicts in evidence, nor decide questions of credibility." Bradley v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 862 F.2d 1224, 1228 (6th Cir. 1988). Finally, this Court must defer to the Commissioner's decision "even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion, so long as substantial evidence supports the conclusion reached by the ALJ." Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997).

         B. Plaintiffs Contentions on Appeal

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's finding of no disability is erroneous because: (1) Plaintiff satisfies the criteria for presumptive disability at Step 3 and (2) the ALJ improperly discounted the opinion of Plaintiff s treating ophthalmologist, Andrew Moshfeghi.

         C. Analysis of Contentions on Appeal

         Plaintiffs first claim of error is that Plaintiff satisfies the criteria for presumptive disability at Step 3.

         The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals stated in Her v. Commissioner of Social Security, 203 F.3d 388, 391 (6th Cir. 1999), "the burden of proof lies with the claimant at steps one through four of the [sequential disability benefits analysis], " including proving presumptive disability by meeting or exceeding a Medical Listing at step three. Thus, Plaintiff "bears the burden of proof at step three to demonstrate that she has or equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1." Arnold v. Commissioner of Social Security, 238 F.3d 419, 2000 WL 1909386, *2 (6th Cir. 2000 (Ky)), citing Burgess v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 964 F.2d 524, 528 (6th Cir. 1992). If the Plaintiff "can show an impairment is listed in Appendix 1 ("the listings"), or is equal to a listed impairment, the ALJ must find the claimant disabled." Buress v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 835 F.2d 139, 140 (6th Cir. 1987).

         "The listing of impairments 'provides descriptions of disabling conditions and the elements necessary to meet the definition of disabled for each impairment." Arnold, at **2, quoting Maloney v. Commissioner, 211 F.3d 1269, 2000 WL 420700 (6th Cir. 2000). In order for the Plaintiff "to qualify as disabled under a listed impairment, the claimant must meet all the requirements specified in the Listing." Id. As the Defendant notes, this must be done by presenting specific medical findings that satisfy the particular Listing. Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530-532, (1990). An impairment that manifests only some of the criteria in a particular Listing, "no matter how severely, does not qualify." Sullivan, at 530.

         Plaintiff claims that her severe impairments establish that she meets the requirements for the Listings and that failed to consider ...


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