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Sowards v. Berryhill

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

February 8, 2019

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Gregory F. Van Tatenhove United States District Judge

         Bobbie Jo Sowards seeks judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which denied her claim for supplemental security income. Ms. Sowards brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), alleging various errors on the part of the ALJ considering the matter. The Court, having reviewed the record and for the reasons set forth herein, will DENY Ms. Sowards Motion for Summary Judgment and GRANT the Commissioner's.



         Plaintiff Bobbie Jo Sowards initially filed an application for Title II disability insurance benefits on May 18, 2015, alleging disability beginning July 1, 2012. [Transcript (hereinafter, “Tr.”) 11.] That claim was denied first in 2015 and denied again upon reconsideration in 2016. Id. At a hearing on May 11, 2017, Ms. Sowards amended her alleged onset date of disability to May 18, 2015. Id. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Susan Brock denied this amended request on August 23, 2017. Id. at 8. The Appeals Council denied Ms. Soward's request for review on April 16, 2018, making the August 23 ALJ decision final. Id. at 1; 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a).

         To evaluate a claim of disability for Title II disability insurance benefit claims, an ALJ conducts a five-step analysis. Compare 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (disability insurance benefit claim) with 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (claims for supplemental security income).[1] First, if a claimant is performing a substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, if a claimant does not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limit his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, he does not have a severe impairment and is not “disabled” as defined by the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Third, if a claimant's impairments meet or equal one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, he is “disabled.” C.F.R. § 404.1530(d). Before moving on to the fourth step, the ALJ must use all of the relevant evidence in the record to determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), which assess an individual's ability to perform certain physical and metal work activities on a sustained basis despite any impairment experienced by the individual. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545.

         Fourth, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work, and if a claimant's impairments do not prevent him from doing past relevant work, he is not “disabled.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Fifth, if a claimant's impairments (considering his RFC, age, education, and past work) prevent him from doing other work that exists in the national economy, then he is “disabled.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

         Through step four of the analysis, “the claimant bears the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by her impairments and the fact that she is precluded from performing her past relevant work.” Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to identify a significant number of jobs that accommodate the claimant's profile, but the claimant retains the ultimate burden of proving his lack of residual functional capacity. Id.; Jordan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 548 F.3d 417, 423 (6th Cir. 2008).

         At step one, the ALJ found Ms. Sowards had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date, May 18, 2015. Tr. at 14. At step two, the ALJ found Ms. Sowards to suffer from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, lumbago, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), congestive heart failure, ischemic heart disease (status-post stent replacement), anxiety, depression, generalized osteoarthritis with a mild inflammatory component, and obesity. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined her combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in C.F.R. Part 404 or Part 416. Id. at 15. Before moving on to step four, the ALJ considered the record and determined that Ms. Sowards possessed the following residual functioning capacity (RFC):

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that [Ms. Sowards] has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b), except she can only occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolding. The claimant can frequently balance and stoop, and she can occasionally kneel, crouch, and crawl. She may have frequent exposure to extreme heat and cold, vibrations, machinery, and unprotected heights. The claimant can understand and carry out both simple and complex instructions and tasks. Any workplace changes should occur only occasionally and should be gradually introduced.

Id. at 18. After explaining the RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Ms. Sowards had no relevant past work, as her earnings fell below the substantial gainful activity level. Id. at 23. However, upon considering her age, RFC, and education, the ALJ found she was capable of performing jobs existing in the national economy. Id. at 24. Accordingly, the ALJ determined at step five that Ms. Sowards was not disabled since May 18, 2015. Id. at 25. Ms. Sowards filed this action for review on May 21, 2018. [R. 1.]


         The Court's review is generally limited to whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Wright v. Massanari, 321 F.3d 611, 614 (6th Cir. 2003); Shelman v. Heckler, 821 F.2d 316, 319-20 (6th Cir. 1987). “Substantial evidence” is “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) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). The substantial evidence standard “presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which [administrative] decision makers can go either way, without interference by the courts.” Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (quoting Baker v. Heckler, 730 F.2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir. 1984)).

         To determine whether substantial evidence exists, courts must examine the record as a whole. Cutlip, 25 F.3d at 286 (citing Kirk v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6th Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 957 (1983)). However, a reviewing court may not conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or make credibility determinations. Ulman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012); see also Bradley v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 862 F.2d 1224, 1228 (6th Cir. 1988). Rather, if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently, and even if substantial evidence also ...

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