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Jeffries v. Colvin

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

January 23, 2018

LESLIE JEFFRIES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DAVID J. HALE, JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Leslie Jeffries filed this action seeking review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security to deny Jeffries' applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (Docket No. 1) The case was referred to Magistrate Judge Colin H. Lindsay for report and recommendation. Judge Lindsay issued his Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Recommendation on September 29, 2017, recommending that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed and that Jeffries' complaint be dismissed with prejudice. (D.N. 18) Jeffries timely filed objections to Judge Lindsay's report and recommendation. (D.N. 19) For the reasons set forth below, Jeffries' objections will be overruled. After careful consideration, the Court will adopt in full Judge Lindsay's Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Recommendation.

         I. Background

         On May 30, 2013, Jeffries filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits. (D.N. 12-5, PageID # 237-50) The Commissioner denied the applications on July 3, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on September 16, 2013. (See D.N. 12-4) Jeffries thereafter filed a written request for a hearing before an administrative law judge. (Id., PageID # 182) On January 12, 2015, the ALJ issued an opinion denying Jeffries' claims. (D.N. 12-2, PageID # 65-73) The ALJ found, among other things, that Jeffries has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform “light work” as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b).[1] (Id., PageID # 68-72) The ALJ also found that considering Jeffries' age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. (Id., PageID # 72-73) The appeals council denied Jeffries' request for review. (Id., PageID # 54)

         Jeffries filed this action on August 4, 2016, challenging the Commissioner's denial of her claims. (D.N. 1) Jeffries moved for summary judgment. (D.N. 14) Specifically, Jeffries argues that the ALJ's decision warrants reversal on two grounds: (1) the ALJ's “[RFC] finding does not include any limitation for . . . Jeffries' well-documented medical[ly] determinable bilateral hand impairment” and (2) “the ALJ did not evaluate treating source primary care physician[] Dr. Virginia Purdom's medical opinion as a treating source opinion and did not cite good reasons for rejecting it.” (D.N. 14-1, PageID # 484) The Court referred this matter to Magistrate Judge Colin H. Lindsay, who issued a report and recommendation on September 29, 2017. (D.N. 13; D.N. 18) Judge Lindsay recommends that this Court affirm the Commissioner's decision and that Jeffries' complaint be dismissed with prejudice. (D.N. 18, PageID # 532)

         II. Standard

         When reviewing a report and recommendation, this Court reviews de novo “those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). The Court may adopt without review any portion of the report to which an objection is not made. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985). On review, the Court “may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). Accordingly, the Court will review de novo the portions of Judge Lindsay's recommendation to which Jeffries objects to determine if relief is warranted.

         As detailed in Judge Lindsay's recommendation, “[t]he Commissioner has promulgated regulations setting forth a five-step sequential evaluation process for evaluating a disability claim.” (D.N. 18, PageID # 527 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1))) Only steps four and five are at issue in Jeffries' objections. At step four, the ALJ considers the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). The claimant has the burden of proof at step four. Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 529 (6th Cir. 1997). At step five, the ALJ considers the claimant's RFC with her age, education, and work experience to determine whether she can make an adjustment to other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). The Commissioner has the burden of proof at step five. Walters, 127 F.3d at 529.

         In reviewing an ALJ's decision, the Court asks “whether it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.” Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted). “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. (internal quotations omitted). 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)). Where substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the Court “must affirm.” Staymate v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 681 F. App'x 462, 466 (6th Cir. 2017) (citing Barker v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 789, 794 (6th Cir. 1994)). Moreover, “[t]he findings of the [ALJ] are not subject to reversal merely because there exists in the record substantial evidence to support a different conclusion.” Buxton v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 246 F.3d 762, 772-73 (6th Cir. 2001); see also Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999) (“Even if the evidence could also support another conclusion, the decision of the Administrative Law Judge must stand if the evidence could reasonably support the conclusion reached.”).

         III. Discussion

         A. The ALJ's RFC Finding

         Jeffries first takes issue with the ALJ's RFC finding, and specifically the ALJ's failure to include any limitation regarding Jeffries' alleged hand impairment. (D.N. 14-1, PageID # 493- 95) In his recommendation, Judge Lindsay rejected this argument, finding that “substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC findings.” (D.N. 18, PageID # 529) He noted that “all of the experts' medical reports indicated that while [Jeffries] was experiencing discomfort in her hands, not only was there . . . no definitive diagnosis for her ailment, but the specialists' findings did not support the degree of distress that [Jeffries] claimed.” (Id.) The expert reports included (i) Dr. Knetsche's neurological examination of Jeffries, which found that she had normal motor strength, sensation, and painless range of motion of her upper extremities; (ii) Dr. Nazar's neurological examination, which concluded that Jeffries had full motion of all extremities; and (iii) Dr. Sajid's report, which found that Jeffries did not have rheumatoid arthritis.[2] (Id. (citing D.N. 12-2, PageID # 70-71))

         In her objection, Jeffries alleges that the ALJ and magistrate judge reached their conclusions “by performing a selective reading of the medical evidence, focusing only on what they perceived as normal findings to reject Ms. Jeffries' claims and [Jeffries' treating physician] Dr. Purdom's opinion.”[3] (D.N. 19, PageID # 537) This allegation is essentially a claim that the ALJ and magistrate “cherry picked” the record evidence. An ALJ need not “discuss every piece of evidence in the record, ” however. Conner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 658 F. App'x 248, 254 (6th Cir. 2016) (citing Thacker v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 99 F. App'x 661, 665 (6th Cir. 2004)). Furthermore, a claim of “cherry picking” is “seldom successful because crediting it would require a court to re-weigh record evidence.” DeLong v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 748 F.3d 723, 726 (6th Cir. 2014). As discussed above, the “substantial evidence” standard does not permit this Court to make evidentiary rulings. Cohen, 964 F.2d at 528.

         As a corollary to her initial objection, Jeffries cites Social Security Rule 16-3p, which states that an ALJ “will not disregard an individual's statements about . . . symptoms solely because the objective medical evidence does not substantiate the degree of impairment-related symptoms alleged by the individual.” 2016 WL 1119029 at *5 (Mar. 16, 2016). Although Jeffries does not make her point explicit, by citing SSR ...


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