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Walters v. Berryhill

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

July 5, 2018

LIBBY LYNNE WALTERS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, in her official capacity as the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, DEFENDANT.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Edward B. Atkins United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff, Libby Lynne Walters, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to challenge Defendant Commissioner's final decision denying Plaintiff's application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. [R. 1; R. 14-1, at 1]. This matter has been referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of a final judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. [R. 17]. The specific matters currently before this Court include Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 14] and Defendant's responsive Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 19]. Both matters are now ripe for decision, and, for the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 14] will be granted, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 19] will be denied. Accordingly, the Court will reverse the Defendant Commissioner's decision to deny Plaintiff's disability claims and remand this matter for further administrative proceedings in accordance with this order.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On March 20, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. [R. 10-1, at 25]. Also on March 20, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. Id. In both applications, Plaintiff alleged her disability began on October 25, 2012. Id. On June 11, 2014, Plaintiff's claims were denied for the first time. Id. On February 20, 2015, Plaintiff's claims were denied for the second time. Id. On July 21, 2016, an additional hearing was held. Id. On October 3, 2016, Plaintiff's claim was denied for the third time. Id. at 25-34. Plaintiff then filed an administrative appeal; however, on October 13, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Id. at 5. Having exhausted her administrative remedies, on December 1, 2017, Plaintiff sought review through an action in this Court. [R. 1].

         On May 8, 2018, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), Plaintiff filed the present Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 14], with an accompanying Memorandum in Support [R. 14-1], arguing, “The ALJ's finding, at step 4 of the sequential analysis, that Plaintiff can return to “past relevant work” is contrary to law; in the absence of step 5 findings, remand is the only appropriate disposition of this case.” Id. at 1.

         Responding to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 14], on June 7, 2018, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to Rule 56(a) [R. 19] arguing, in summary, “The ALJ appropriately relied on a vocational expert and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) to find that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work.” [R. 19, at 3].

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a reviewing court “must affirm the Commissioner's conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.” Longworth v. Comm'r Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). The scope of judicial review is limited to the record itself, and the reviewing court “may not try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in evidence, nor decide questions of credibility.” Hogg v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 328, 331 (6th Cir. 1993) (citations omitted).

         The Sixth Circuit has held that “substantial evidence exists when a reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate to support a conclusion.” Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). The limited nature of substantial evidence review prevents the reviewing court from substituting its judgment for that of the ALJ. Rather, so long as substantial evidence exists, the reviewing court should affirm the ALJ's Decision [R. 10-1, at 81-91] “even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion.” Longworth, 402 F.3d at 595 (citations omitted). Substantial evidence is “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.” Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted). “In determining whether the Secretary's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, [the Court] must examine the evidence in the record ‘taken as a whole . . . .'” Wyatt v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992) (citing Allen v. Califano, 613 F.2d 139, 145 (6th Cir. 1980)). Additionally, the Court “‘must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.'” Wyatt, 974 F.3d at 683 (citing Beavers v. Secretary of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 577 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1978). “The substantial evidence standard presupposes that there is a ‘zone of choice' within which the [Commissioner] may proceed without interference from the courts.” Felisky v. Bowen, 35 F.3d 1027, 1035 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). “If the Secretary's findings are supported by substantial evidence, then we must affirm the Secretary's decision even though as triers of fact we might have arrived at a different result.” Elkins v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 658 F.2d 437, 439 (6th Cir. 1981).

         DISCUSSION

         Under the Social Security Act, the term “disability” means an “inability to engage in any 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 . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A five-step sequential evaluation process is used to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. In summary, the five-step sequential evaluation process is as follows:

The first step is to determine whether the claimant is engaged in significant gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). If not, the second step is to determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment, which is “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” § 416.920(c). If there is a severe impairment, the third step is to determine whether the impairment meets or exceeds the criteria of one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1. § 416.920(d). If the claimant does not satisfy one of the listings, the [fourth step] is to determine whether the claimant's impairment prevents him from performing his past relevant work. § 416.920(e). If it does not, the claimant is found not disabled. [At the fifth step, ] [i]f the impairment prevents a return to former work, the claimant's residual functional capacity must be determined, id., and it is then considered in conjunction with the claimant's age, work experience and education in order to ascertain whether the impairment or combination of impairments prevents the claimant from doing other work. § 416.920(f); see also Subpart P, Appendix 2, Tables 1-3.

Williamson v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 796 F.2d 146, 149 (6th Cir. 1986); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.

         The claimant “bear[s] the burden at step one of showing that he is not working, at step two that he has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments, and at step four that the impairment prevents him from performing his past work.” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n. 5 (1987). “[T]he Secretary bears the burden of proof at step five, which determines whether the claimant is able to perform work available in the national economy.” Id.

         Since the Parties' cross motions for summary judgment [R. 14; R. 19] concern the same facts, the Court will consider the Parties' Motions [R. 14; R. 19] together. The sole issue before the Court is whether the ALJ's Decision [R. 10-1, at 25-34] that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past ...


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