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Wright v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Owensboro Division

February 7, 2019

JAMES T. WRIGHT PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          H. Brent Brennenstuhl United States Magistrate Judge.

         BACKGROUND

         Before the Court is the complaint (DN 1) of James Wright seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Both the Plaintiff (DN 15) and Defendant (DN 20) have filed a Fact and Law Summary. For the reasons that follow, the final decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED, and this matter is REMANDED pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, the parties have consented to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge conducting all further proceedings in this case, including issuance of a memorandum opinion and entry of judgment, with direct review by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in the event an appeal is filed (DN 11). By Order entered June 4, 2018 (DN 12), the parties were notified that oral arguments would not be held unless a written request therefor was filed and granted. No. such request was filed.

         FINDINGS OF FACT

         Wright filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on June 2, 2014 (Tr. 10). Wright alleged that he became disabled on April 1, 2013 as a result of heart disease, shortness of breath, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression (Tr. 58). Administrative Law Judge, Lisa R. Hall (''ALJ''), conducted a video hearing on September 8, 2016 from Paducah, Kentucky. Wright participated via video conference from Owensboro, Kentucky and was represented by Sara J. Martin. Also present and testifying was Kenneth Boaz, an impartial vocational expert.

         In a decision dated June 28, 2017, the ALJ evaluated this adult disability claim pursuant to the five-step sequential evaluation process promulgated by the Commissioner (Tr. 10-21). At the first step, the ALJ found Wright has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 1, 2014, the alleged onset date (Tr. 12). At the second step, the ALJ determined that Wright's coronary artery disease, peripheral arterial disease, asthma, and history of drug abuse are ''severe'' impairments within the meaning of the regulations (Tr. 12-13). Notably, at the second step, the ALJ also determined that Wright's hypertension is a ''non-severe'' impairment (Tr. 13). She also determined that Wright's anxiety and depression are not medically determinable impairments (Tr. 13). At the third step, the ALJ concluded that Wright does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1 (Tr. 13).

         At the fourth step, the ALJ found Wright has the residual functional capacity to perform light work with limitations (Tr. 14). Specifically, the ALJ found that Wright can lift, carry, push, and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sit, stand, and walk for 6 hours each out of an 8-hour workday; and can only occasionally climb ladders. He should avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes and pulmonary irritants. He should avoid even moderate exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights or dangerous moving machinery. (Tr. 14). Relying on testimony from the vocational expert, the ALJ found that Wright is unable to perform any of his/her past relevant work (Tr. 19).

         The ALJ proceeded to the fifth step where he considered Wright's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience as well as testimony from the vocational expert (Tr. 20). The ALJ found that Wright is capable of performing a significant number of jobs that exist in the national economy (Tr. 20). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Wright has not been under a ''disability, '' as defined in the Social Security Act, from April 1, 2013 through the date of the decision (Tr. 21).

         Wright timely filed a request for the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision (Tr. 1). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 1).

         CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

         Standard of Review

         Review by the Court is limited to determining whether the findings set forth in the final decision of the Commissioner are supported by ''substantial evidence, '' 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Cotton v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 692, 695 (6th Cir. 1993); Wyatt v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992), and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Landsaw v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 803 F.2d 211, 213 (6th Cir. 1986). ''Substantial evidence exists when a reasonable mind could accept the evidence as adequate to support the challenged conclusion, even if that evidence could support a decision the other way.'' Cotton, 2 F.3d at 695 (quoting Casey v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 987 F.2d 1230, 1233 (6th Cir. 1993)). In reviewing a case for substantial evidence, the Court ''may not try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in evidence, nor decide questions of credibility.'' Cohen v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 964 F.2d 524, 528 (6th Cir. 1992) (quoting Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984)).

         As previously mentioned, the Appeals Council denied Wright's request for review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 1). At that point, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.955(b), 404.981, 422.210(a); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(h) (finality of the Commissioner's decision). Thus, the Court will be reviewing the decision of the ALJ, not the Appeals Council, and the evidence that was in the administrative record when the ALJ rendered the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Cline v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 96 F.3d 146, 148 (6th Cir. 1996); Cotton v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 692, 695-696 (6th Cir. 1993).

         The Commissioner's Sequential Evaluation Process The Social Security Act authorizes payment of Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income to persons with disabilities. 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. (Title II Disability Insurance Benefits), 1381 et seq. (Title XVI Supplemental Security Income). The term ''disability'' is defined as an

[I]nability 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 twelve (12) months.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) (Title II), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (Title XVI); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a); Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214 (2002); Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990).

         The Commissioner has promulgated regulations setting forth a five-step sequential evaluation process for evaluating a disability claim. See ''Evaluation of disability in general, '' 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. In summary, the evaluation proceeds as follows:

1) Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity?
2) Does the claimant have a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that satisfies the duration requirement and significantly limits his or her ability to do basic work activities?
3) Does the claimant have an impairment that meets or medically equals the criteria of a listed impairment within Appendix 1?
4) Does the claimant have the residual functional capacity to return to his or her ...

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