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Alexander v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

May 24, 2019

SUSAN ALEXANDER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          GREGORY F. VAN TATENHOVE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Susan Alexander seeks judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which denied Alexander's claim for supplemental social security. [Transcript (hereinafter, “Tr.”) 24.] Alexander brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), alleging various errors on the part of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) considering the matter. The Court, having reviewed the record and for the reasons set forth herein, will DENY Ms. Alexander's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 12] and will GRANT the Commissioner's [R. 14.]

         I

         A

         Plaintiff Alexander filed an application for supplemental social security in January 2015, alleging disability beginning on January 9, 2015. [Tr. 12.] Alexander's motion for summary judgment explains she suffers from various neck and back conditions, obesity, diverticulitis, fibromyalgia, epicondylitis, migraine headaches, anxiety, and depression. [Tr. 15.] Alexander's claims for supplemental social security were initially denied on May 15, 2015 and upon reconsideration on August 24, 2015 [Tr. 12.] Subsequently, a hearing was conducted upon Alexander's request. [Id.] Following the hearing, ALJ Roger L. Reynolds issued a final decision denying Alexander's claims. [Tr. 24.] Alexander, who was 47 years old at the time of the alleged disability onset, has a GED and some technical college classes, and past relevant work as a medical records clerk and front office assistant. [R. 12-1 at 3.] The vocational expert who participated in the hearing testified that the demands of positions such as inspector or tester, assembly/bench work, and machine tender do not exceed Alexander's residual functional capacity. [Tr. 23.] Finding the vocational expert's testimony sufficiently consistent with other relevant evidence and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (there was a slight discrepancy in the expert's use of a “sit stand option” that is not in the DOT, but was otherwise consistent), the ALJ determined Alexander is capable of “making a successful adjustment to other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy.” [Id.]

         In evaluating a claim of disability, an ALJ conducts a five-step analysis. See 20 C.F.R. 404.1520 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." 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d). Before moving to the fourth step, the ALJ must use all the relevant evidence in the record to determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which assesses an individual's ability to perform certain physical and mental 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 clamant 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.; Jordon v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 548 F.3d 417, 423 (6th Cir. 2008).

         In this case, at Step 1, the ALJ determined that Alexander did not engage in substantial gainful activity from the date of her alleged onset disability through her date last insured. [Tr. 15.] At Step 2, the ALJ found Alexander to suffer from the severe impairments of chronic neck and upper extremity pain and weakness secondary to degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, status post C5/6 discectomy and fusion, obesity, diverticulitis, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, fibromyalgia, history of right epicondylitis, migraine headaches, anxiety, and depression. [Id.] At Step 3, the ALJ found Alexander's combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [Tr. 18.] Before moving on to Step 4, the ALJ considered the entire record and determined Alexander possessed the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with certain limitations described as follows:

[T]he claimant requires a sit stand option with no prolonged standing or walking in excess of 30 minutes without interruption; no sitting in excess of 15 minutes to one hour without interruption; frequent use of the hands for pinching, feeling, fingering, grasping, or pushing/pulling; no climbing of ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; occasional climbing of stairs or ramps, occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling; no work with hands over the head; no operation of foot pedal controls; should perform work with only occasional need to turn the head; no exposure to concentrated vibration or industrial hazards; requires entry level work with simple repetitive procedures; can tolerate only occasional changes in work routines; and should work in an object oriented environment with only occasional and casual contact with coworkers, supervisors or the general public.

[Tr. 20.] After explaining in detail how he determined Alexander's RFC [Tr. 20-22], the ALJ found at Step 4 that, based on this RFC, Alexander is capable of performing jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. [Tr. 22.] Accordingly, the ALJ concluded Alexander was not disabled under §§ 216(i) and 223(d)of the Social Security Act. [Id.] The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on January 9, 2018 [Tr. 1-4], and Alexander now seeks judicial review in this Court.

         B

         This Court's review is 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] decisionmakers can go either way, without interference by the courts.” Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (en banc) (quoting Baker v. Heckler, 730 F.2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir. 1984)).

         In determining the existence of substantial evidence, 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) (citation omitted); 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 ...


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