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Riggs v. Berryhill

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

March 21, 2018

MICHAEL RIGGS PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Dave Whalin, Magistrate Judge United States District Court

         PLAINTIFF Michael Riggs has filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security that denied his applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI). Riggs applied for DIB and SSI on July 26 and August 13, 2013, respectively, alleging that he was disabled as of May 24, 2013, due to degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, diabetes mellitus accompanied by peripheral neuropathy, osteoarthritis of the hands, coronary artery disease, hypertension, COPD/ asthma and obesity (Tr. 131, 324, 326). The Commissioner denied Riggs' claims on initial consideration (Tr. 221-222) and on reconsideration (Tr.249-250). Riggs requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (Tr. 275-76).

         ALJ William C. Zuber conducted a hearing in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 2, 2016 (Tr. 152-202). Riggs attended with his attorney, Ms. Sykes (Tr. 152). Riggs and vocational expert (VE) Robert Piper testified at the hearing (Tr.). Following the conclusion of the hearing, ALJ Zuber entered a hearing decision on August 24, 2016 that found Riggs is not disabled for the purposes of the Social Security Act (Tr. 129-146).

         In his adverse decision, ALJ Zuber made the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 24, 2013, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. 404.1571, et seq. and 416.971, et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, diabetes mellitus with lower extremity peripheral neuropathy, osteoarthritis of the hands, coronary artery disease, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) /asthma, and obesity (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)). (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The claimant does 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 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except he would require the option to change positions between sitting and/or standing every 30 to 45 minutes: he could never crawl, kneel, balance, or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; he could no more than occasionally stoop, crouch, and climb ramps or stairs; he could no more than occasionally reach overhead; he could no more than frequently use the hands; he would be limited to no concentrated exposure to extremes of temperature, vibration, dust, fumes, gases, or odors; he could have no exposure to dangerous machinery or unprotected heights; and he would require a cane for ambulation but not standing.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. 404.1565 and 416.965).
7. The claimant was born on January 15, 1969, and was 44-years-old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 C.F.R. 404.1563 and 416.963).
8. The claimant has at least a high-school education and is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. 404.1564 and 416.964).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has transferrable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 2).
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant No. in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 C.F.R. 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969 and 416.969(a)).
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 24, 2013, through the date of this decision (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

(Tr. 129-146). Riggs sought review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council (Tr. 121-123). The Appeals Council denied his request for review after receiving additional evidence (DN 10-60), finding no reason under the Rules to review ALJ Zuber's decision (Tr. 1-8). The present lawsuit followed.

         The 5-Step Sequential Evaluation Process.

         Disability is defined by law as being the inability to do substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death, or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. See, 20 CFR §§ 404.1505(a)(4), 416.905(a). To determine whether a claimant for DIB or SSI benefits satisfies such definition, a 5-step evaluation process has been developed. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520, 916.920(a). At step 1, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the Commissioner will find the claimant to be not disabled. See, 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.971. See, Dinkel v. Secretary, 910 F.2d, 315, 318 (6th Cir. 1990).

         If the claimant is not working, then the Commissioner next must determine at step 2 of the evaluation process whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of severe impairments that significantly limit his or her ability to perform basic work activities. See 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the impairments of the claimant are determined by the Commissioner to be non-severe, in other words, so slight that they could not result in a finding of disability irrespective of a claimant's vocational factors, then the claimant will be determined to be not disabled at step 2. See, Higgs v. Bowen, 880 F.2d 960, 962 (6th Cir. 1988); Mowery v. Heckler, 771 F.2d 966, 971-72 (6th Cir. 1985).

         If the claimant has a severe impairment or impairments, then the Commissioner at step 3 of the process will determine whether such impairments are sufficiently serious to satisfy the listing of impairments found in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Part 404 of the federal regulations. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(A)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii) The claimant will be determined to be automatically disabled without consideration of his or her age, education or work experience if the claimant's impairments are sufficiently severe to meet or equal the criteria of any impairment listed in the Appendix. See, Lankford v. Sullivan, 942 F.2d 301, 306 (6th Cir. 1991); Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990).

         When the severity of the claimant's impairments does not meet or equal the listings, then the Commissioner must determine at step 4 whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity (RFC) given his or her impairments to permit a return to any of his or her past relevant work. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). See, Smith v. Secretary, 893 F.2d 106, 109-110 (6th Cir. 1989). A claimant who retains the residual functional capacity, despite his or her severe impairments, to perform past relevant work is not disabled. 20 CFR §§ 404.1560(b)(3), 416.960(b)(3). The burden switches to the Commissioner at step 5 of the sequential evaluation process to establish that the claimant, who cannot return to his or her past relevant work, remains capable of performing alternative work in the national economy given his or her residual functional capacity, age, education and past relevant work experience. See, 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1560(c), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.960(c); Felisky v. Bowen, 35 F.3d 1027, 1035 (6th Cir. 1994); Herr v. Commissioner, 203 F.3d 388, 391 (6th Cir. 1999).

         Collectively, the above disability evaluation analysis is commonly referred to as the “5-step sequential evaluation process.” Standard of Review Review of a decision of the Commissioner is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The statute, and case law that interprets it, require a reviewing court to affirm the findings of the Commissioner if they are supported by substantial evidence and the Commissioner has employed the appropriate legal standard. Walters v. Commissioner of Social Security, 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997) (“This Court must affirm the Commissioner's conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standards or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.). Substantial evidence is defined by the Supreme Court to be “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). See also, Lashley v. Sec'y of HHS, 708 F.2d 1048, 1053 (6th Cir. 1983) (citing Perales). It is ...


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