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McKinney v. Berryhill

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

May 30, 2019

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


          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.


         On December 29, 2014, Plaintiff Belinda McKinney filed an application for disability insurance benefits. (Tr. 78-81, 216). Plaintiff was fifty years old at the time of filing, and she alleged that she was unable to work due to, inter alia, back pain, hypertension, allergic rhinitis, depression, diabetic stenosis, neuropathy, GERD, and fatigue. (Doc. # 7-1 at 2; Tr. 216, 232, 249-52, 254). Plaintiff worked as a nurse's aide from 2003 to 2007, and as an office manager from approximately 2008 to 2014; she alleged that her disability onset date began on September 1, 2014. (Tr. 42, 78-81, 301). Plaintiff's application was denied initially, and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 78-79).

         At Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was conducted by video on April 14, 2017, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Anthony J. Johnson, Jr. (Tr. 40-66). At the hearing, the ALJ heard the testimony of Plaintiff as well as a vocational expert. Id. On June 13, 2017, ALJ Johnson issued a written decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 17-34). This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on April 25, 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 June 18, 2018, alleging the ALJ “erred as a matter of law in failing to find on the evidence presented that the Plaintiff was disabled within the meaning of the law.” (Doc. # 1 at 2). This matter has culminated in cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for adjudication. (Docs. # 7 and 9).


         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 September 1, 2014, the alleged onset date of the disability. (Tr. 22). At Step Two, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease with radicular symptoms to the lower-right extremity and diabetes mellitus type II. 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. 25). 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 is] able to lift, carry, push and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk six hours in an eight hour workday and sit six or more hours in an eight hour workday; able to occasionally climb, but never climb ladder, ropes and scaffolds, occasionally balance, occasionally stoop, occasionally kneel, occasionally crouch and occasionally crawl; frequently but not constantly able to handle, finger and feel with the right upper extremity (dominant hand); occasionally able to perform overhead reaching with the right upper extremity; and must be permitted to change position between sitting and standing at intervals of approximately 20-30 minutes while remaining on task.

(Tr. 26). Based on this RFC and relying partially on the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as an office manager. (Tr. 33). Accordingly, the ALJ ruled that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act. (Tr. 24).

         C. ...

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