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Stolz v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, Covington

May 29, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration DEFENDANT



         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.


         On March 3, 2015, Plaintiff Alisia[1] 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).

         Plaintiff 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.


         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 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).

         Here, 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 limitations:

[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.

         (Tr. 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.

         C. Analysis

         Plaintiff 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.

         1. The ALJ did not err in evaluating Plaintiff's fibromyalgia.

         Plaintiff 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 medical ...

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