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Binder v. Berryhill

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

November 27, 2018

ROBERT BINDER PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          David L. Banning United States District 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 denying Plaintiff's eligibility for Social Security disability insurance benefits. (Doc. # 1). 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

         Plaintiff Robert Binder protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning on September 10, 2011. (Doc. # 9 at 1; Tr. 264-79). Binder also protectively filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. (Tr. 264-79). Binder was forty-four years old at the time of filing, and alleged that he was unable to work due to problems with his back, as well as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and depression. (Tr. 134). The claims were denied initially on July 17, 2014, and again upon reconsideration on November 6, 2014. (Tr. 184-191, 192-195, 198-204, 205-211).

         At Binder's request, an administrative hearing was conducted on October 12, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Christopher S. Tindale. (Tr. 104-133). On December 7, 2016, ALJ Tindale issued his decision. (Tr. 14-29). The ALJ noted that Binder was “insured through September 30, 2011.” (Tr. 14). He found, however, that Binder's impairments did not become disabling until November 12, 2014; accordingly, the ALJ ruled that Binder was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time through September 30, 2011-the last date that Binder met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act. Id. at 14. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on November 29, 2017, when the Appeals Council denied Binder's request for review. (Tr. 1-6).

         Binder filed the instant action on January 18, 2018, alleging the ALJ's decision was “not supported by substantial evidence, ” and was “erroneous.” (Doc. # 1 at 1). The matter has culminated in cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for adjudication. (Docs. # 9 and 11).

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Overview of the Process

         To determine disability, the ALJ conducts a five-step analysis. Step One considers whether the claimant can still perform 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 or her past relevant work; and Step Five, whether a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that a claimant can perform. Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 529 (6th Cir. 1997) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The burden of proof rests with the Plaintiff on the first four steps. Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). 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.” Id. The ALJ's decision is considered the “final decision” of the Commissioner, and, after a denial of a plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision by the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council, gives rise to judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Thacker v. Berryhill, No. 16-CV-114, 2017 WL 653546, at *1 (E.D. Ky. Feb. 16, 2017).

         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). Pursuant to this standard, 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 decision so long as it is supported by substantial evidence-even if the Court might have decided the case differently. Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999). 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). Similarly, an administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported the opposite conclusion. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 780, 781-82 (6th Cir. 1996).

         B. The ALJ's Determination

         As an initial matter, the ALJ determined that Binder met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2011. (Tr. 16). The ALJ then proceeded to the five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether Binder was disabled during the relevant time period. At Step One, the ALJ found that Binder had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 10, 2011, the alleged onset date of disability. Id. At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Binder had the following severe impairments: (1) disorders of the spine; (2) diabetes mellitus; (3) obstructive sleep apnea; (4) chronic heart failure; (5) coronary artery disease; (6) mood disorder; and (7) anxiety disorder. Id. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Binder did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 19.

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that, prior to November 12, 2014, Binder possessed the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a reduced range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 404.967(a), with the following limitations:

[Binder] could have occasionally climbed ramps and stairs, but never have climbed ladders, ropes or scaffolds. He could have occasional[ly] stooped, kneeled, crouched and crawled. He was limited to simple, routine tasks consistent with unskilled work in a work environment free of fast production rate or pace work. He could have had occasional contact with the public and frequent contact with co-workers and supervisors. He must have worked in a low-stress environment defined as having only occasional changes in the work setting and only occasional decision making required.

(Tr. 20). Based upon this RFC and relying on the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), see Id. at 129, the ALJ concluded that Binder was unable to perform his past relevant work as a freight conductor or cargo plane loader/unloader. Id. at 26-27. Therefore, the ALJ proceeded to Step Five. At Step Five, the ALJ found that no jobs existed in the national economy that Binder could perform after November 12, 2014. Id. at 27-28. However, as to the relevant time period, the ALJ determined that other jobs did exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Binder could have performed prior to November 12, 2014. Id. at 27-28. Thus, the ALJ found that ...


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