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Gum v. Berryhill

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

March 8, 2018

DANIEL E. GUM, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Robert E. Wier, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Daniel Gum appeals the Commissioner's denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits. The parties filed dueling dispositive motions.[1] The Court GRANTS the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (DE #18) and DENIES Gum's motion for judgment on the pleadings (DE #15) because substantial evidence supports the findings resulting in the administrative decision, and the decision rests on proper legal standards.


         Gum is currently 53 years old. See, e.g., R. at 321 (indicating date of birth of 3/2/1965). He alleges disability beginning on (as amended) November 14, 2014. See R. at 14, 44-45, 148-49. Gum applied for benefits on June 13, 2014. R. at 148-49. His claims were initially denied on September 2, 2014, see R. at 85-88, and upon reconsideration on November 20, 2014. See R. at 90-92. Gum then filed a written request for a hearing on December 8, 2014. R. at 97-98. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Don C. Paris held a video hearing on the application on March 15, 2016. R. at 31-59. At the hearing, Gum testified; attorney Jason K. Baril represented him. R. at 14, 83-84. An impartial vocational expert (VE)[2] also testified. R. at 49-58. The ALJ subsequently denied Gum's claims on April 19, 2016. R. at 14-24. The Appeals Council denied review and thus upheld the ALJ's decision on July 7, 2017. R. at 1-3.

         The ALJ made several particular findings in the required sequence. He determined that Gum did not engage in substantial gainful activity from November 14, 2014, the amended alleged onset date, through April 19, 2016, the date of decision. R. at 16. The ALJ next determined that Gum has two severe impairments. Id. However, ALJ Paris then found that Gum did “not have an impairment or combination of impairments that [met] or medically equal[ed] the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1[.]” R. at 18. The ALJ further made a detailed residual functional capacity (RFC) finding. R. at 18-22. Although ALJ Paris found Gum “unable to perform any past relevant work, ” the ALJ determined that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Gum] can perform[.]” R. at 22-23. Based on all these considerations, the ALJ ruled that Gum was not “under a disability . . . from . . . November 14, 2014, through the date of th[e] decision, ” April 19, 2016. R. at 24. Unsatisfied with the result of the SSA's administrative process, Gum turned to federal district court for review.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         The Court has carefully read the ALJ's full decision and all medical reports it cites. The Court also read and considered the full administrative hearing and record. Judicial review of the ALJ's decision to deny disability benefits is a limited and deferential inquiry into whether substantial evidence supports the denial's factual decisions and whether the ALJ properly applied relevant legal standards. Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009); Jordan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 548 F.3d 417, 422 (6th Cir. 2008); Brainard v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 1989) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427 (1971)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (providing and defining judicial review for Social Security claims) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive[.]”).

         Substantial evidence means “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.” Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994); see also Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004). The Court does not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or assess questions of credibility. Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007). Similarly, the Court does not reverse findings of the Commissioner or the ALJ merely because the record contains evidence-even substantial evidence-to support a different conclusion. Warner, 375 F.3d at 390. Rather, the Court must affirm the ALJ's decision if substantial evidence supports it, even if the Court might have decided the case differently if in the ALJ's shoes. See Longworth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005); Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999).

         The ALJ, when determining disability, conducts a five-step analysis. See Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At Step 1, the ALJ considers whether the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity. See Preslar, 14 F.3d at 1110. At Step 2, the ALJ determines whether one or more of the claimant's impairments are severe. Id. At Step 3, the ALJ analyzes whether the claimant's impairments, alone or in combination, meet or equal an entry in the Listing of Impairments. Id. At Step 4, the ALJ determines RFC and whether the claimant can perform past relevant work. Id. The inquiry at this stage is whether the claimant can still perform that type of work, not necessarily the specific past job. See Studaway v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 815 F.2d 1074, 1076 (6th Cir. 1987). Finally, at Step 5, when the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner, if the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the ALJ determines whether significant numbers of other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform, given the applicable RFC. See Preslar, 14 F.3d at 1110; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). If the ALJ determines at any step that the claimant is not disabled, the analysis ends at that step. Mowery v. Heckler, 771 F.2d 966, 969 (6th Cir. 1985); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         When reviewing the ALJ's application of the legal standards, the Court gives deference to his interpretation of the law and reviews the decision for reasonableness and consistency with governing statutes. Whiteside v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 834 F.2d 1289, 1292 (6th Cir. 1987). In a Social Security benefits case, the agency's construction of the statute should be followed “unless there are compelling indications that it is wrong.” Merz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 969 F.2d 201, 203 (6th Cir. 1992) (quoting Whiteside, 834 F.2d at 1292).

         B. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC determination.

         Gum generally argues that substantial evidence does not support ALJ Paris's RFC determination. Gum's chief complaint is that the ALJ “improperly speculated that ‘passage of time' would result in improvement in [Gum]'s knee impairment, and used this unsupported lay assumption to reject the opinion of consultative medical examiner Dr. McEldowney.” DE #15-2, at 11. The Acting Commissioner, on the other hand, contends that the ALJ “reasonably evaluated the medical source opinions, ” “reasonably concluded that [Gum]'s knee would continue to improve” given the entire record, and formulated an RFC “supported by substantial evidence.” DE #18, at 5-8.[3]

         ALJ Paris, upon “careful consideration of the entire record, ” R. at 16, crafted ...

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