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Brown v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London

December 11, 2018

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


          David L. Bunning 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. The Court, having reviewed the record and the parties' dispositive motions, and for the reasons set forth herein, will affirm the Commissioner's decision.


         On June 17, 2015, Plaintiff James Edward Brown protectively filed for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II, and on January 28, 2016, similarly filed for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI. (Tr. 11, 208-25). Each application alleged disability beginning on May 2, 2015, when Plaintiff was forty-four (44) years old. (Tr. 18, 208-25). Both applications were initially denied, and again on reconsideration. (Tr. 130, 140-54). At Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was conducted on April 20, 2017 before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Dennis Hansen. (Tr. 55-83). On June 19, 2017, ALJ Hansen ruled that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 11-20). This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on January 16, 2018, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-7).

         Plaintiff filed the instant action on February 20, 2018 alleging that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence, contrary to law, and applied the incorrect standards. (Doc. # 2). The matter has culminated in cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for adjudication. (Docs. # 11 and 13).


         A. Standard of Review

         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 decision, as 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

         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. 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 claimant on Steps One through Four. 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 [the claimant's] residual functional capacity.” Id. The ALJ's determination becomes the final decision of the Commissioner if the Appeals Council denies review, as it did here. See Thacker v. Berryhill, No. 16-CV-114, 2017 WL 653546, at *1 (E.D. Ky. Feb. 16, 2017); (Tr. 1-7).

         Here, at Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 2, 2015, the alleged onset date of the disability. (Tr. 13). At Step Two, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: history of cardiovascular accident (CVA), hypertension with history of heart disease, kidney disease with history of kidney stones, gout, obesity, anxiety, and depression. (Tr. 13). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's alleged sinusitis, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and vitamin D deficiency were non-severe impairments because they did not cause “more than minimal work related limitations.” (Tr. 13). At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 13-15).

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff possesses the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work at the light exertional level as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b), with the following modifications and limitations:

[C]laimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; and can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can occasionally be exposed to extreme cold, extreme heat, humidity, and wetness. The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; and can never be exposed to unprotected heights or dangerous moving machinery, and can never operate a motor vehicle at work. He can understand and remember simple instructions; and can sustain attention and concentration to complete simple tasks with regular breaks every two hours. The claimant can interact as needed with supervisors and coworkers and occasionally interact with the public. He can adapt to routine work conditions and occasional work place changes.

(Tr. 15). Based on this RFC and relying on the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as an apartment maintenance worker and auto mechanic. (Tr. 18). Thus, the ALJ proceeded to Step Five where he determined, informed by testimony of the VE, that there were other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 18-19). ...

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