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May v. Berryhill

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

March 25, 2019

SARAH M. MAY 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 Sarah M. May 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 July 23, 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

         May filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on August 1, 2014 (Tr. 212-227). She also protectively filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on August 1, 2014. In both applications, May alleged that she became disabled on July 27, 2014 as a result of depression, fibromyalgia, anxiety, and tinnitus (Tr. 254). Administrative Law Judge Lisa R. Hall ("ALJ") conducted a hearing on January 17, 2017. The conference was held via video conference with the ALJ presiding from Paducah. May and her counsel, Sara J. Martin, appeared in Owensboro, Kentucky. James B. Adams an impartial vocational expert also appeared and testified at the hearing.

         In a decision dated August 8, 2017, the ALJ evaluated this adult disability claim pursuant to the five-step sequential evaluation process promulgated by the Commissioner (Tr. 17-26). At the first step, the ALJ found May has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 27, 2014, the alleged onset date (Tr. 19). At the second step, the ALJ determined that May's depression and anxiety are "severe" impairments within the meaning of the regulations (Tr. 20). Notably, at the second step, the ALJ also determined that May's degenerative disc disease is a "non-severe" impairment within the meaning of the regulations (Tr. 20). At the third step, the ALJ concluded that May does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1 (Tr. 21).

         At the fourth step, the ALJ found May has the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of work at all exertional levels with non-exertional limitations (Tr. 22). More specifically, the ALJ found that May should avoid climbing ladders and avoid moderate exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights or moving/dangerous machinery. She can perform simple, routine, repetitive work tasks, meaning tasks that apply commonsense understanding to carry out instructions furnished in written, oral, or diagrammatic form, with the ability to deal with problems involving several concrete variables in or from standardized situations. She can frequently interact with co-workers and supervisors but only occasionally interact with the general public. She should not work in a fast-paced or production-based work environment but could do entry-level or goal-oriented work (Tr. 22). Relying on testimony from the vocational expert, the ALJ found that May is unable to perform any of her past relevant work (Tr. 24).

         The ALJ proceeded to the fifth step where she considered May's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience as well as testimony from the vocational expert (Tr. 25). The ALJ found that May is capable of performing a significant number of jobs that exist in the national economy (Tr. 25). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that May has not been under a "disability," as defined in the Social Security Act, from July 27, 2014 through the date of the decision (Tr. 26).

         May timely filed a request for the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision (Tr. 141-42). The Appeals Council denied May's request for review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 1-7).

         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 May's request for review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 1-7). 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 ...


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