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Kitchen v. Berryhill

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

September 20, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL., Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Angela Kitchen brings this matter under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking 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.


         In determining disability, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) uses a five-step analysis. See Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). 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. Id.; see also Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).

         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to an inquiry into whether or not the findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence, and whether the correct legal standards were applied. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971). “The substantial evidence standard is met if a reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate to support a conclusion.” Longworth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005) (internal citations omitted). A reviewing court may not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or decide questions of credibility. See Ulman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012). Even if the court would have resolved the factual issues differently, the Commissioner's decision must stand if supported by substantial evidence. See Tyra of Health & Human Servs., 896 F.2d 1024, 1028 (6th Cir. 1990). Similarly, an administrative decision is not subject to reversal even if substantial evidence would have supported the opposite conclusion. Ulman, 693 F.3d at 714.

         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), alleging disability beginning June 1, 2010. (TR 177-178). The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (TR 86, 87). After a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied Plaintiff's claim on October 5, 2016. (TR 22-38). The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's ruling. (TR 5-7). This appeal followed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Consistent with the Court's Standing Scheduling Order, the parties have submitted cross motions for summary judgment, which are ripe for review. [DE 12, 14].

         Plaintiff has restricted her arguments to the issues specifically discussed below. Plaintiff's Brief (Pl.'s Br.) at 5-11. Therefore, the Court will limit its recitation of the medical evidence to that pertaining to the issues in the case and will discuss the evidence before the ALJ only with respect to those issues specifically argued by Plaintiff or to provide context.


         Marc Workman, M.D., has occasionally treated Plaintiff since 2013-2014 (with appointments occurring 3-4 months apart) (Tr. 392-394, 636). Dr. Workman's conservative treatment of Plaintiff has primarily consisted of prescribed medications for back pain, diabetes mellitus, anxiety/depression, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (Tr. 394, 604). An October 2014 MRI of Plaintiff's lumbar spine provided by Alan Cochrane, M.D., at the request of Dr. Workman showed previous posterior fusion changes at L4, L5, and S1, with appropriately positioned hardware, no postoperative complications, and no disc herniation (Tr. 435). In relation to Plaintiff's diabetes mellitus, January 2013 records indicate that she reported that her blood sugar levels were doing well (Tr. 394). However, by August 2014, Dr. Workman noted that Plaintiff was not compliant in taking her diabetes medication (Tr. 428). In January 2015, Dr. Workman noted that Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease was fairly stable (Tr. 622). In late June 2015, Plaintiff advised Dr. Workman that she was staying “very active” and “doing a lot of work in the hay fields.” (Tr. 612).

         Nonetheless, in a July 2016 Mental Impairment Questionnaire, Dr. Workman opined that Plaintiff had marked restriction in her activities of daily living; marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning and in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and had experienced three episodes of decompensation within a 12-month period, each of a least two weeks duration (Tr. 636-639). In a contemporaneous medical source statement as to Plaintiff's physical ability to perform work-related activities, he opined that Plaintiff could lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally, less than 10 pounds frequently; sit for 30 minutes at one time and a total of four hours in an 8-hour workday; stand and walk for 15 minutes at one time and for a total of 2 hours in an 8-hour workday; would need the opportunity to shift at will from sitting or standing and walking; but could occasionally perform specific postural and manipulative activities. He further opined that Plaintiff would need to take an unscheduled break every hour for 10 minutes at a time before returning to work; and needed to avoid moderate exposure to operating a motor vehicle; as well as all exposure to specific environmental conditions; and that she would miss more than 4 days per month due to her alleged impairments or associated treatments (Tr. 632-634).

         William E. Waltrip, M.D., performed a consultative examination of Plaintiff in September 2014 (Tr. 378-387). Dr. Waltrip's examination revealed Plaintiff exhibited no memory loss; with good expansion of the ribcage with equal aeration bilaterally; easily heard breath sounds; her lungs clear to auscultation and percussion; no loss of muscle mass or tone of extremities; normal range of motion testing, no scoliosis, and no muscle tenderness or spasm. Plaintiff also exhibited no deformity, heat, tenderness, or redness of the joints; an ability to make a fist; good grip strength; ability to perform fine manipulations without limitation; normal gait; no loss of motor strength; no loss of sensation to fine touch; ability to walk heel-to-toe and tandem; ability to perform a knee squat; ability to walk on the tips of her toes and her heels; and normal deep tendon reflexes. Plaintiff's pulmonary function study showed very mild restrictive disease, but no significant obstructive disease. Dr. Waltrip diagnosed Plaintiff with chronic back pain with radiculopathy of the left lower extremity, noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, sleep apnea, and COPD; and opined that Plaintiff was very minimally limited in her ability to walk, stand, or sit. Dr. Waltrip noted that Plaintiff did not require use of a cane or an assistive device for ambulation. Dr. Waltrip opined that Plaintiff should be able to lift objects of 20-25 pounds without limitation, with good grip and the ability to perform fine and gross manipulation (Tr. 378-387). The record reflects that Plaintiff underwent carpal tunnel release surgery on her right hand in September 2015 (Tr. 459-461).

         In early September 2014, consultative psychologist, Megan Green, Psy.D., also examined Plaintiff (Tr. 388-391). Dr. Green noted that Plaintiff reported that she had a lot of social anxiety and that she did not like to go anywhere alone because she did not know what to expect. She reported daily depression, occasional crying spells, impatience, irritability, feelings of worthlessness, and trouble concentrating. However, Plaintiff reported that she was able to maintain personal hygiene, prepare meals, work on things around the house, take care of the animals, and do household shopping with her daughter. Dr. Green noted that Plaintiff exhibited full orientation; unremarkable psychomotor activity; a cooperative and friendly attitude; normal thought; normal speech; no observed perceptual abnormalities; a depressed and anxious mood; appropriate affect; adequate insight and judgment; intact attention; mildly impaired concentration; and normal memory. Dr. Green provided diagnoses of an unspecified anxiety and depressive disorders and opined that Plaintiff would likely be capable of understanding, remembering, and carrying out instructions and sustaining persistence and pace; as well as adapting to change in work environments that required completion of simple, repetitive tasks (Tr. 388-391).

         In November 2014, state agency physician Douglas Back, M.D., opined that Plaintiff had abilities consistent with medium exertion work (occasional lifting and carrying of 50 pounds and 25 pounds frequently); stand or walk about six hours in an eight-hour workday; and sit about six hours in an eight-hour workday. Dr. Back opined that Plaintiff could climb ramps and stairs, but she should never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. Dr. Back opined that Plaintiff could frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; with no manipulative limitations and environmental restrictions of avoiding even moderate exposure to pulmonary irritants and workplace hazards (Tr. 97-100).

         At her August 22, 2016 administrative hearing, Plaintiff testified that she was 51 years old and had a high school education with additional data processing training (Tr. 45). She said that she then described her past work activities including her last position that she left in June 2010 (Tr. 45-47). She testified that the primary reason she was unable to work was that she worried excessively (Tr. 48). Plaintiff testified that she did not like to leave the house much but that she did some shopping (Tr. 52). She said that she passed the time by playing with her little dog, card games on her phone, bible studies, and watching TV (Tr. 53). She testified that she was able to care for her own personal needs and sometimes does housework (Tr. 54). Plaintiff testified that she had sleep apnea (but did not have a CPAP machine) and severe bladder problems (Tr. 54). She said that she had remote back surgery in 2005 but was still able to lift 20 pounds (Tr. 55-56). She testified that she had problems with her hands due to carpal tunnel (Tr. 56). Plaintiff testified that she could stand for 20 minutes at a time and walk for 10 minutes (but that it varied from day to day (Tr. 56). She said that she did not have problems sitting but that when she gets up her hips are stiff and “it takes a little bit to get moving” (Tr. 57). She also said that she experienced muscle cramps in her arms and legs (Tr. 59). Plaintiff testified that ...

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