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Cornett v. Berryhill

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

February 19, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Linda Ann Cornett 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 denying her application for disability benefits. The Court, having reviewed the record, will AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision, as it is supported by substantial evidence.


         Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining whether it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards. Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). “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.” Id. Courts are not to conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or make credibility determinations. Id. Rather, we are to affirm the Commissioner's decision, provided it is supported by substantial evidence, even if we might have decided the case differently. See Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999).

         The ALJ, in determining disability, conducts a five-step analysis. See Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). Step One considers whether the claimant is still performing substantial gainful activity; Step Two, whether any of the claimant's impairments 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 significant numbers of other jobs exist in the national economy which the claimant can perform. As to the last step, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the Commissioner. Id.; see also Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).


         In July 2014, Plaintiff filed her current applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB), and supplemental security income (SSI), alleging disability as of February 15, 2011 (Tr. 1026, 1033). Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration (Tr. 897, 898, 937, 938). After a hearing (Tr.832- 848), an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) reviewed the evidence of record and denied plaintiff's application (Tr. 12-33). The ALJ's decision became the final determination of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council declined review of it (Tr. 1-6). This appeal followed.

         III. Statement of the Facts

         Plaintiff was 43 years old at the time of her alleged disability onset date in February 2011 (Tr. 1026). She has a high school education plus two years of college (Tr. 1065). Her past relevant work was as a security guard (Tr. 845, 1065). In her current application materials, she initially alleged she was unable to work due to both physical and mental impairments (Tr. 1064).

         (a) Medical records relevant to Plaintiff's alleged impairments from her currently alleged disability onset date of February 15, 2011 through the ALJ's February 15, 2017 decision[1]

         A January 2014 primary care record documented normal x-rays of Plaintiff's right shoulder and elbow. (Tr. 1213, 1277-1279). A subsequent late April 2014 chest scan again showed “no active cardiopulmonary process” but “with signs of chronic bronchitis (Tr. 1208, 1210). In July 2014, scans of Plaintiff's knees showed only early arthritic changes without significant structural abnormalities or neurological involvement (Tr. 1256-1258). September 2014 primary care treatment records note that Plaintiff had been in a pressure chamber to treat right arm cellulitis (i.e., hyperbaric oxygen therapy) and that the arm was healing fast (Tr. 1543). The following month, x-rays of Plaintiff's right wrist and chest were normal while contemporaneous scans of the right knee revealed only mild degenerative changes (Tr. 1491, 1493, 1535). June 2015 primary care records document a follow-up appointment following arthroscopic surgery on Plaintiff's right knee by Kirpal Singh Sidhu, M.D., a week earlier to repair a meniscal tear (Tr. 1723-1724), at which time Plaintiff presented as “well appearing, ” “in no distress, ” and without apparent signs of complications (Tr. 1854). A July 2015 chest x-ray was normal while a month later an MRI of the right knee showed moderate joint effusion, arthritis and a meniscal tear (Tr. 1781-1782, 1787). In August 2015, a lumbar MRI revealed “signs of degenerative disc disease at ¶ 3-L4, L4-L5 and L5-Sl”, but “no signs of a herniated nucleus pulpous or spinal stenosis” (Tr. 1788). In October 2015, chest imaging again showed no active cardiopulmonary process in addition to stable signs of chronic bronchitis that had appeared on previous studies (Tr. 1852). Also, in October 2015, Plaintiff followed up for chronic bronchitis, exacerbated by continuing a long-term, heavy cigarette smoking habit (Tr. 1846-1847). Additional October 2015 lab tests showed Plaintiff had good electrolyte levels, good liver and kidney function, good lipid levels, and normal thyroid readings (Tr. 1887).

         In September 2016, primary care records reflected continuing noncompliance with dietary exercise, and smoking treatment recommendations in response to reporting of upper respiratory symptoms. Nevertheless, examination documented Plaintiff's “grossly intact” neurological profile and a normal mental status exam (Tr. 1895).

         In October 2014, William Rigby, Ph.D., documented a largely unremarkable mental status exam of Plaintiff that accurately typified the conservative treatment record. Dr. Rigby diagnosed Plaintiff with anxiety and opiate abuse in sustained remission and opined that Plaintiff had no impairment in understanding, retaining, and following simple instructions and no impairment in sustaining concentration and persistence to complete tasks in a normal time. Dr. Rigby further opined that Plaintiff had a mild impairment in adapting and responding to the pressures of a normal day-to-day work activity; and a moderate restriction in maintaining social interactions with supervisors, friends, and the public, commensurate with a global assessment functioning (GAF) score of 70. Dr. Rigby also observed that Plaintiff's “posture is erect” and “gait is normal” (1478-1481).

         State agency physician P. Saranga, M.D., reviewed the record during the current administrative proceedings and opined that Plaintiff had a physical functional capacity consistent with light exertion with additional postural limitations (Tr. 912-914).

         State agency psychologist Tonya Gonzalez, Psy.D., and physician, Alex Guerrero, M.D., also reviewed the record during the current administrative proceedings with both mental health consultants opining that Plaintiff was subject to no more than mild limitations in her activities of daily living and in maintaining social functioning and concentration, ...

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