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Blakely v. Berryhill

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

April 30, 2019

JERRY LEE BLAKELY, JR. PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          David L. Bunning, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff 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. The Court, having reviewed the record and the parties' dispositive motions, and for the reasons set forth herein, will affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On May 7, 2016, Plaintiff Jerry Lee Blakely, Jr. protectively filed for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II. (Tr. 15). This application alleged disability beginning on June 30, 2016. (Tr. 15). The application was initially denied, and again denied on reconsideration. (Tr. 15). At Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was conducted on October 11, 2017 before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Joyce Francis. (Tr. 15, 24). On January 18, 2018, ALJ Francis ruled that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 12-24). This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on August 15, 2018 when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-3).

         Plaintiff filed the instant action on September 11, 2018 alleging that the Commissioner's decision was not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. # 1). The matter has culminated in cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for adjudication. (Docs. # 7 and 9).

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

          Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is restricted to determining whether it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards. See Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 729 (6th Cir. 2007). “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.” Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). Courts are not to conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or make credibility determinations. Id. Rather, the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision, as long as it is supported by substantial evidence, even if the Court might have decided the case differently. Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's findings must be affirmed, even if there is evidence favoring Plaintiff's side. Listenbee v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 345, 349 (6th Cir. 1988). Similarly, an administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported the opposite conclusion. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 780, 781-82 (6th Cir. 1996).

         B. The ALJ's Determination

         To determine disability, the ALJ conducts a five-step analysis. Step One considers whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity; Step Two, whether any of the claimant's impairments, alone or in combination, 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 a significant number of other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 529 (6th Cir. 1997) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The burden of proof rests with the claimant on Steps One through Four. Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). As to the last step, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to identify “jobs in the economy that accommodate [the claimant's] residual functional capacity.” Id. The ALJ's determination becomes the final decision of the Commissioner if the Appeals Council denies review, as it did here. See Thacker v. Berryhill, No. 16-CV-114, 2017 WL 653546, at *1 (E.D. Ky. Feb. 16, 2017); (Tr. 1-3).

         Here, at Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 30, 2016, the alleged onset date of the disability. (Tr. 17). At Step Two, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, and status post cervical spinal fusion. (Tr. 17). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's other impairments-hypertension, dyslipidemia, mild valvular aortic stenosis, mild binaural hearing loss, left cheek abscess, anxiety, and depression-caused no more than minimal limitations on his ability to work. (Tr. 17-19). At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 19-20).

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff possesses the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work at the light exertional level as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with the following modifications and limitations: claimant can frequently climb ramps and stairs; can frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; can frequently be exposed to extreme cold and vibration; can frequently be exposed to unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery; and can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. (Tr. 20). Based on this RFC and relying on the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as a company laborer. (Tr. 22-23). Thus, the ALJ proceeded to Step Five where she determined, informed by testimony of the VE, that there were other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 23-24). Accordingly, the ALJ ruled that the Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act. (Tr. 24).

         C. Analysis

         Plaintiff advances two main arguments in the memorandum in support of his Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. # 7-1). First, Plaintiff claims that the “determination that [he] is not disabled is not supported by substantial evidence.” Id. at 7-12. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ “failed to properly evaluate [his] ...


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