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Abanathy v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky

February 19, 2019

SUSAN D. ABANATHY, PLAINTIFF
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Thomas B. Russell, Senior Judge United States District Court

         Plaintiff Susan Abanathy brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision to deny her claim for Social Security disability benefits. [R. 1.] The Court referred the action to Magistrate Judge King for a report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636. [R. 7.] The Magistrate Judge recommended that the Court affirm the Commissioner's final decision and dismiss Abanathy's Complaint. [R. 22.] Subsequently, Abanathy filed an Objection to the Magistrate Judge's Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and Recommendation, [R. 24], and the Commissioner responded, [R. 26.] Having reviewed the Administrative Record, the parties' submissions, and the applicable law, the Court will ADOPT the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation, [R. 22], and OVERRULE Abanathy's Objection, [R. 24]. The Court will enter a separate Order and Judgment consistent with this Memorandum Opinion.

         BACKGROUND

         On October 1, 2013, Abanathy filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, as well as a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. [R. 11-2 at 11 (ALJ Decision).] After these claims were denied, Abanathy was granted a video hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on June 1, 2016, where an impartial vocational expert appeared. [Id.]

         The ALJ denied Abanathy's claims in a decision dated September 15, 2016. [See generally Id. at 11-19.] Using the traditional five-step evaluation for disability benefits, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ made the following findings: First, Abanathy had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 1, 2013. [Id. at 13.] Second, Abanathy has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease in the lumbar spine, essential hypertension, GERD, and diabetes mellitus, type II. [Id. at 14.] Third, Abanathy's impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the Commissioner's recognized impairments. [Id.] Fourth, Abanathy has a residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium work, and she is capable of performing past relevant work as a fast food worker, deliverer, hostess, and housekeeper. [Id. at 14, 17.] Finally, the ALJ concluded that Abanathy is not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. [Id. at 19.]

         On October 24, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Abanathy's request for review of the ALJ's decision. [Id. at 2.] Abanathy then filed a Complaint with this Court for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision to deny her claim for Social Security disability benefits. [R. 1.]

         LEGAL STANDARD

         It is well-settled that the Court reviews the objected-to portions of a report and recommendation de novo. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). Its review of the Commissioner's determination is, of course, more deferential. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009). The scope of that inquiry is limited to (1) “whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence” and (2) “whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.” Miller v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 811 F.3d 825, 833 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting Blakley, 581 F.3d at 405-06). “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.'” Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). “When substantial evidence supports an ALJ's decision, we affirm even if we would have decided differently, see Kinsella v. Schweiker, 708 F.2d 1058, 1059 (6th Cir.1983) (per curiam), and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion, see Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir.1986) (en banc).” Francis v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 414 Fed.Appx. 802, 805 (6th Cir. 2011). “[H]owever, ‘a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the [Social Security Administration] fails to follow its own regulations and where that error prejudices a claimant on the merits or deprives the claimant of a substantial right.'” Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007)).

         DISCUSSION

         As recited above, the scope of this Court's inquiry is limited to (1) “whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence” and (2) “whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.” Miller, 811 F.3d at 833. Thus, the Court will address the arguments of Abanathy's Objection as they apply within this inquiry. First, Abanathy contends that the ALJ's RFC was not supported by substantial evidence. [R. 24 at 8-10, 15-16 (Abanathy Objection).] Second, Abanathy asserts that the ALJ failed to follow and apply required legal standards. [Id. at 11-15.] The Court will address each argument in turn.

         A. Whether the Findings of the ALJ are Supported by Substantial Evidence

         Abanathy contends that the ALJ concluded that she is capable of medium work activity “solely because [a] non-examining MD of unknown qualifications signed off on a form previously authored by a lay decisionmaker (AR 100-102, 113-116) saying that she could do so.” [R. 24 at 9.] Moreover, Abanathy asserts that “this approach does not consider the record as a whole or the relevant medical facts critical to this particular case and Ms. Abanathy's particular pain-producing causative factors.” [Id.] If the ALJ only cited to a non-examining doctor's findings as support, perhaps the Court would agree that the findings of the ALJ were not supported by substantial evidence. However, that is not the case, as the ALJ references evidence throughout the record in support of its findings.[1]

         It is true that the Sixth Circuit has suggested that ALJs should be cautious when confronted by a medical opinion prepared by a non-examining physician. See Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 652 F.3d 646, 650 (6th Cir. 2011) (questioning the opinion of a non-examining physician that failed to cite to objective medical evidence and came to a conclusion contrary to that of his findings); Sutton v. Berryhill, No. 517CV00007GNSLLK, 2018 WL 1508596, at *3 (W.D. Ky. Mar. 27, 2018) (“The Court's conclusion that the ALJ's finding is not supported by substantial evidence is underscored by the fact that the ALJ only credited a portion of a medical opinion prepared by a non-examining physician who appears to have done nothing more than adopt the lay opinion of Bragg in its entirety”). However, the ALJ did not solely rely on the opinion of the non-examining physician, Dr. Jack Reed, in its findings. In fact, in the ALJ's analysis alone, she referenced evidence throughout the record from a variety of medical professionals, including the treating physician, Dr. Yogesh Malla.[2] First, she cited the imaging performed in 2013 at Lourdes Hospital that revealed “early degenerative changes, with no acute radiographic abnormalities of the lumbar spine.” [R. 11-7 at 251 (Lumbar Spine Image Impression).] Second, the ALJ referenced reports from December 2014 and February 2015 from Dr. Malla and Kathy Long, ARNP, respectively, at the Pain Management Center, which stated that Abanathy “is doing fine with the medication management with more than 50% relief, ” “she reports her back pain is stable, ” and that she experienced more than 50% pain relief with medication. [Id. at 336, 338 (Pain Management Center Records).] Third, the ALJ cited an August 2015 report from Long which listed that her back pain was stable and “no physical disabilities noted, ” as well as a December 2015 report from Long of 50% relief of back pain with medication therapy, even when Abanathy reported that her back pain had been worse. [Id. at 402, 437-38 (Pain Management Center Records).] Thus, the assertion that the ALJ solely relied on the opinion of Dr. Reed without considering the record as a whole is incorrect.

         Abanathy also boldly claims that there is “simply no evidence that arises to the standard of substantial evidence that indicates the capacity to sustain the demands of medium work on a sustained basis as defined by 20 CFR 404.1567 and otherwise in the applicable legal standards.” [R. 24 at 8-9.] As explained above, “‘[s]ubstantial evidence' means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lindsley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 560 F.3d 601, 604 (6th Cir. 2009). Furthermore, “[t]he substantial evidence standard is less exacting than the preponderance of evidence standard. If the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, then reversal would not be warranted even if substantial evidence would support the opposite conclusion.” Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007) (internal citations omitted). Here, the ALJ relied on reports from medical staff throughout the record, including Dr. Malla and Dr. Reed. Thus, the Court finds that the ALJ relied on “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lindsley, 560 F.3d at 604; see also Francis, 414 Fed.Appx. at 805 (holding that the ALJ correctly assigned no weight to a treating physician when “the ALJ cited the opinion's inconsistency with the objective medical evidence, [plaintiff]'s conservative treatment and daily activities, and the assessments of [plaintiff]'s other physicians”); Gaskin v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,280 Fed.Appx. 472, 475 (6th Cir. 2008) (collecting cases in which ALJ correctly ...


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