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Howard v. Berryhill

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

February 8, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT



         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 October 22, 2014, Plaintiff Freddy Keith Howard filed an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”), alleging disability beginning on February 9, 2012. (Tr. 279-88). Specifically, Plaintiff alleged that he was limited in his ability to work due to the following: “herniated disks in back”; “COPD”; “Recurrent Arrythmia[sic]”; “Gerd[sic]”; “Anxiety”; “Panic Disorder”; “Hearing”; “Arthritis in hands and knees”; “Degenerative Disc Disease”; “Depression”; “Sleep problems”; and “Tumor on tailbone.” (Tr. 304).

         Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 123-24, 159-60). At Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was conducted on December 5, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Boyce Crocker. (Tr. 34-59). On January 10, 2017, ALJ Reynolds ruled that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 40-67). This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on March 24, 2017. (Tr. 1-6).

         On April 13, 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. # 12 and 14).


         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 and 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

         Before he could consider Plaintiff's case, the ALJ was first required to consider Plaintiff's previous application for DIB, which had resulted in an unfavorable decision dated September 3, 2014. (Tr. 43). Based on Social Security Regulations and on the doctrine of res judicata, the ALJ determined that the previous unfavorable decision was final, binding, and involved the same issues, facts, and law. Id. As a result, the time period that he was permitted to examine was from September 4, 2014 forward. Id.

         At Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from September 4, 2014 through his date last insured. (Tr. 46). At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease, congenital heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, melanoma, mood disorder, and anxiety (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).” Id. At Step Three, the ALJ considered Listings 1.04, 3.02, 4.06, 13.03, 12.04, and 12.06, and 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. 47-48).

         At Step Four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c), ...

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