United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
L. BUNNING, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
September 24, 2014, Plaintiff Mark Lingar protectively filed
for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits
(DIB) under Title II. (Tr. 36). This application alleged
disability beginning on August 24, 2012. (Tr. 36). The
application was initially denied, and again on
reconsideration. (Tr. 36). At Plaintiff's request, an
administrative hearing was conducted on October 12, 2016
before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Tommye C. Mangus. (Tr.
36, 56-77). On February 22, 2017 ALJ Mangus ruled that
Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 33-49). This
decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on
December 4, 2017 when the Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-3).
filed the instant action on February 1, 2018 (Doc. # 1)
alleging that the Commissioner's decision was not
supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. # 8-1 at 1). The
matter has culminated in cross-motions for summary judgment,
which are now ripe for adjudication. (Docs. # 8 and 12).
Standard of Review
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 the 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).
claimant files an application for benefits under the same
title of the Social Security Act as a previously-determined
application, the principal of res judicata places
limits on the evidence that an ALJ evaluating the second
application can review. The Sixth Circuit has established
that “the principles of res judicata can be applied
against the [SSA] Commissioner.” Drummond v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 126 F.3d 837, 842 (6th Cir.
1997). “When the Commissioner has made a final decision
concerning a claimant's entitlement to benefits, the
Commissioner is bound by this determination absent changed
circumstances.” Id. Furthermore,
“[a]bsent evidence of an improvement in a
claimant's condition, a subsequent ALJ is bound by the
findings of a previous ALJ.” Id. (citing
Lively v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.,
820 F.2d 1391 (4th Cir. 1987)); see also Dennard v.
Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 907 F.2d 598,
600 (6th Cir. 1990) (per curiam) (holding that a second ALJ
was precluded from reconsidering whether a plaintiff could
perform his past relevant work).
light of the holding in Drummond, the Commissioner
issued an Acquiescence Ruling directing states within the
Sixth Circuit to follow Drummond by applying res
judicata to a prior assessment of a claimant's
residual functional capacity as well as other findings
required in the sequential evaluation process for determining
disability. This Ruling explained:
When adjudicating a subsequent disability claim with an
unadjudicated period arising under the same title of the
[Social Security] Act as the prior claim, adjudicators must
adopt such a finding from the final decision by an ALJ or the
Appeals Council on the prior claim in determining whether the
claimant is disabled with respect to the unadjudicated period
unless there is new and material evidence relating to such a
finding or there has been a change in the law, regulations or
rulings affecting the finding or the method for arriving at
SSAR 98-4(6), 63 Fed. Reg. 29771-01 (Jun. 1, 1998).
Accordingly, a prior ALJ's RFC determination must not be
altered unless new and material evidence is presented showing
that the plaintiff's condition has significantly changed.
See Drummond, 126 F.3d at 842. The plaintiff bears
the burden of showing that his condition has worsened to the
point that he is no longer able to perform substantial
gainful activity. Priest v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 3
Fed.Appx. 275, 276 (6th Cir. 2001) (citing Casey v.
Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 987 F.2d 1230,
1232-33 (6th Cir. 1993)).
The ALJ's Determination
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. 1-3).
ALJ Mangus could consider Plaintiff's case, she was first
required to consider Plaintiff's previous application for
DIB, which had resulted in an unfavorable decision dated
August 23, 2012. (Tr. 36). Based on Social Security
Regulations and the doctrine of res judicata, the
ALJ determined that the previous unfavorable decision was
final and binding, but that Lingar's at-issue application
presented new material evidence which “indicate
additional impairments causing some additional limitation in
the claimant's residual functional capacity.” (Tr.
36-37). As a result, and as required by Sixth Circuit
precedent, ALJ Mangus considered this new evidence in
determining whether changes to the prior ALJ's findings
and conclusions were necessary. See Drummond, 126
F.3d at 842.
at Step One, ALJ Mangus found that Plaintiff had not engaged
in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date
of the disability, August 24, 2012, through his date last
insured, September 30, 2015. (Tr. 39). At Step Two, the ALJ
determined that, through the date last insured, the Plaintiff
had the following severe impairments: history of left ankle
fracture, lumbar spina degenerative disc disease with
radiculopathy, third grade literacy level, fibromyalgia,
cervical spine degenerative disc disease, bilateral shoulder
bursitis, mild bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, decreased
vision, obesity, depression, and anxiety. (Tr. 39-42). At
Step 3, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have ...