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Ransom v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, Covington

June 25, 2018

CHRISTOPHER RANSOM PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          David L. Bunning Judge.

         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 and the parties' dispositive motions, and for the reasons set forth herein, will affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On February 24, 2014, Plaintiff Christopher Ransom applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), alleging disability beginning on February 8, 2013. (Tr. 574, 598). Plaintiff was forty-one-years old at the time of the alleged disability onset date, and he alleged that he was unable to work due to a back injury. Id.

         Plaintiff's application was denied initially, and again on reconsideration. (Tr. 482-492; 495-506). At Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was conducted on April 21, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Andrew Gollin. (Tr. 58-102). On June 16, 2016, ALJ Gollin ruled that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 40-57). This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on August 18, 2017, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-7). In denying review, the Appeals Council also declined to consider new medical evidence submitted by the Plaintiff because it did “not show a reasonable probability that it would change the outcome of the decision.” (Tr. 2).

         Plaintiff filed the instant action on September 13, 2017, alleging the ALJ's decision “was contrary to law” and applied “incorrect standards.” (Doc. # 1 at 2). The matter has culminated in cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for adjudication. (Docs. # 13 and 18).

         II. DISCUSSION

         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 Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 729 (6th Cir. 2007). “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.” Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). 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 conclusions unless the Commissioner failed to apply the correct legal standard or made findings of fact that are unsupported by substantial evidence.” McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006). 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 & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 345, 349 (6th Cir. 1988). Put another way, “[t]he findings of the Commissioner are not subject to reversal merely because there exists in the record substantial evidence to support a different conclusion.” McClanahan, 474 F.3d at 833 (citing Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 772 (6th Cir. 2001)). “This is so because there is a ‘zone of choice' within which the Commissioner can act, without the fear of court interference.” Buxton, 246 F.3d at 772.

         To determine disability, the ALJ conducts a five-step analysis. Step One considers whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity; Step Two, whether any of the claimant's impairments, alone or in combination, 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 a significant number of other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. The burden of proof rests with the claimant on Steps One through Four. As to the last step, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to identify “jobs in the economy that accommodate [Plaintiff's] residual functional capacity.” See Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003); see also Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).

         B. The ALJ's Determination

         At Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 8, 2013, the alleged onset date of disability. (Tr. 45). At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: lumbar disc displacement and bulging; degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine status post anterior fusion of L5-S1. Id. The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff had one non-severe impairment: depression. (Tr. 45-46). At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 47).

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff possessed the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work at the light exertional level, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with the following limitations:

The claimant is limited to lifting/carrying no more than 15 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. The claimant is limited to standing/walking for no more than one hour at a time and for a total of no more than five hours in an eight-hour workday. The claimant is limited to sitting for no more than one hour at a time and for a total of no more than six hours in an eight-hour workday. The claimant is limited to no more than occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, crouching, kneeling, and crawling. The claimant is limited to no climbing of ropes, ladders, or scaffolds. The claimant is limited to no work involving concentrated exposure to vibration. The claimant is limited to no work involving hazardous machinery or equipment and no work involving unprotected heights.

(Tr. 47). Based on this RFC and relying on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not able to perform his past relevant work as a forklift operator, material handler, or mixer. (Tr. 52). Therefore, the ALJ proceeded to Step Five where he determined that there were other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the Plaintiff could have performed. (Tr. 28-29). Specifically, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff could perform the following occupations: cashier, general office clerk, or rental clerk. (Tr. 53).

         Although the determination that jobs at the light exertional level existed in significant numbers in the national economy was sufficient to conclude the analysis, the ALJ also considered the Plaintiff's job prospects if he had the RFC to perform work at the sedentary exertional level. Id. “Even if the [Plaintiff was] further limited to sedentary work with the other restrictions identified” in the RFC, the ALJ found that “he would still be able to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. Id. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act. Id.

         C. Analysis

         Plaintiff advances four arguments in his Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. # 13). First, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred in weighing the medical-opinion testimony. (Doc. # 13-1 at 17). Second, Plaintiff appears to argue that the ALJ erred in assessing his credibility. Id. at 2-5, 15. Third, Plaintiff advances a general argument that the RFC is not supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 13-16. And lastly, the Plaintiff suggests that remand is appropriate under Sentence Six because he has presented new, material evidence. Id. at 18. The Court will consider each argument in turn.

         1. The ALJ did not err in weighing the medical-opinion testimony.

         In social security disability cases, medical evidence may come from treating sources, non-treating sources, and non-examining sources. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527. A treating source is the claimant's “own acceptable medical source who provides [claimant], or has provided [claimant], with medical treatment or evaluation and who has, or has had, an ongoing treatment relationship with [claimant].” Id.; see also Abney v. Astrue, No. 5:07-cv-394-KKC, 2008 WL 2074011, at *11 (E.D. Ky. May 13, 2008). A non-treating source is an acceptable medical source who has examined the claimant, but does not have an ongoing treatment relationship with her, while a non-examining source has provided medical or other opinion evidence in the case without examining the claimant. Id.

         The Plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ's decision to accord any weight to the medical opinion testimony of Dr. Sadler, a non-examining source, as well as the ALJ's decision to give only some weight to the testimony of Dr. Wunder, a non-treating, examining source. (Doc. # 13-1 at 14-15, 17). The Plaintiff also challenges the ALJ's alleged “rejection” of Dr. Jacquemin's medical opinion. The Court will address the ALJ's assessment of each doctor's medical-opinion evidence in turn.

         a. ...


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