United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, Covington
ALICIA L. STOLZ PLAINTIFF
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration DEFENDANT
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
L. BUNNING, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
March 3, 2015, Plaintiff Alisia Stolz filed an application for
disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning
in December 2014. (Tr. 167-68). Plaintiff was forty-seven
years old at the time of filing, and she alleged that she was
unable to work due to, inter alia, fibromyalgia with
joint pain and fatigue, headaches, dizziness, depression,
post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. Id.;
(Doc. # 7 at 3). Plaintiff's application was denied
initially, and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 60, 77). At
Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was
conducted on October 4, 2017, before Administrative Law Judge
(ALJ) William Diggs. (Tr. 32-59). On November 16, 2017, ALJ
Diggs issued a written decision finding that Plaintiff was
not disabled under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social
Security Act. (Tr. 14-24). This decision became the final
decision of the Commissioner on May 30, 2018, when the
Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review.
(Tr. 1-5); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
filed the instant action on July 30, 2018, alleging the
ALJ's decision was “against the evidence” and
contrary to law. (Doc. # 1 at 2). This matter has culminated
in cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to the
Court's September 28, 2018 Scheduling Order. (Docs. # 6,
7, and 9). Additionally, Plaintiff filed a Response to the
Commissioner's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment, to
which the Commissioner filed a Reply. (Docs. # 12 and 14).
The matter is now ripe for adjudication.
Standard of Review
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).
The ALJ's Determination
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 or her 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. 1-7).
at Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since December 4, 2014, the
alleged onset date of the disability. (Tr. 16). At Step Two,
the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff has the following
severe impairments: post traumatic stress disorder;
fibromyalgia; unspecified arthropathies; affective disorder;
and anxiety disorder. Id. At Step Three, the ALJ
concluded that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the
severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 16-18). At Step Four, the
ALJ found that Plaintiff possesses the residual functional
capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1567(b), with the following modifications and
[Claimant] can frequently climb ramps or stairs, but only
occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and
frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant must
avoid concentrated exposure to noise and work hazards such as
dangerous machinery and unprotected heights. The claimant is
limited to occasional changes in work setting. The claimant
can have occasional contact with supervisors, but no contact
with coworkers or the public.
18-23). At Step Five, the ALJ determined, informed by
testimony of a vocational expert (VE), see (Tr.
52-58), that there were other jobs that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy that the Plaintiff could
perform. (Tr. 24). Accordingly, the ALJ found that the
Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Social
Security Act. Id.
advances four main arguments in her briefing; first, that the
ALJ erred in considering the effects of her fibromyalgia
because he required objective evidence. (Doc. # 7 at 5-6).
Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by affording
incorrect weight to physician opinions. Id. at 6-11.
Third, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in finding
Plaintiff's subjective complaints of disabling
limitations to be unsupported. Id. at 11-13.
Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by asking the VE
improper hypothetical questions that did not take into
account relevant record evidence. Id. at 13. Each
argument will be addressed below.
The ALJ did not err in evaluating Plaintiff's
argues that the ALJ erred “in noting a lack of
objective medical findings (normal neurological and
musculoskeletal) since fibromyalgia does not produce
objective findings on exams and x-rays.” (Doc. # 7 at
5) (citing Tr. 19-20). Plaintiff points to evidence that
examinations by her treating rheumatologist, Christopher
Colglazier, M.D., “consistently had 18 of 18 tender
points for fibromyalgia” and that Plaintiff complained
of pain and fatigue. Id. Further, Plaintiff argues
that the ALJ failed to note that rheumatology is “the
specialty which treats fibromyalgia.” Id. at
6. Plaintiff concludes that, because the ALJ erred in failing
to consider that fibromyalgia does not produce objective