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Yaden v. Saul

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

August 23, 2019

ROBERT WAYNE YADEN PLAINTIFF
v.
ANDREW SAUL, [1] Commissioner of the Social Security Administration DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          David L. Banning, 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 March 8, 2016, Plaintiff Robert Wayne Yaden protectively filed for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II, alleging disability beginning March 8, 2015. (Tr. 11). Plaintiff alleged that he was unable to work due to, inter alia, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, bad knees, degenerated discs in neck, abdominal aneurism, and worn-out cartilage in thumbs. (Tr. 137). The application was initially denied, and again on reconsideration. (Tr. 11). At Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was conducted on August 9, 2017 before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Joyce Francis. Id. On October 25, 2017, ALJ Francis ruled that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 11-20). This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on April 12, 2018 when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-3).

         Plaintiff filed the instant action on May 21, 2018 claiming 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, then the Commissioner's findings must be affirmed, regardless of whether 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 in this case. 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 March 8, 2015, the alleged onset date of disability. (Tr. 13). At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following severe impairment: arthritis of carpometacarpal joint of thumbs. Id. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's other impairments-abdominal aortic aneurysm, chronic cholecystitis, mild hepatomegaly, right renal cyst, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, gastroesophageal reflux disease, hyperglycemia, and obesity-were not severe. (Tr. 13-14). 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. 14-15). At Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, except he can only frequently finger and feel.[2] (Tr. 15-18). Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was able to perform his past relevant work as a postmaster. (Tr. 18). Even though Plaintiff failed to meet his burden at Step Four to show he could not perform his past work, the ALJ still proceeded to Step Five and determined that there were also other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. The ALJ was not required to proceed to Step Five because Plaintiff did not meet his burden at Step Four. See infra; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) (“If you can still do your past relevant work, we find that you are not disabled.”). Plaintiff, however, did not challenge the ALJ's findings at this step, so the Court will not review the ALJ's Step-Five determination. (Tr. 18-19). Accordingly, the ALJ ruled that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act. (Tr. 20).

         C. Analysis

         Plaintiff presents three arguments in support of his Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. # 7-1). First, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 8-11. Next, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate Plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain. Id. at 11-13. Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff could return to his past work is not supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 14-16. The Court will consider each argument in turn.

         1. The ALJ's RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence.

         An RFC is “an administrative assessment of the extent to which an individual's medically determinable impairment(s), including any related symptoms, such as pain, may cause physical or mental limitations or restrictions that may affect his or her capacity to do work-related physical and mental activities.” SSR 96-8p, 61 Fed. Reg. 34474, 34475 (July 2, 1996). Stated another way, the RFC is “what an individual can still do despite his or her limitations.” Id. “In assessing the total limiting effects of [the claimant's] impairment(s) and any related symptoms, [the ALJ] will consider all of the medical and nonmedical evidence” in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(e). The ALJ is only required to incorporate those limitations that she finds credible in the RFC assessment. Irvin v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 573 Fed.Appx. 498, 502 (6th Cir. 2014). A reviewing court gives “the ALJ's determinations of credibility great weight and deference particularly since the ALJ has the opportunity . . . of observing a witness's demeanor while testifying.” Jones, 336 F.3d at 476.

         Plaintiff argues that the medical evidence in the record does not support the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, except he can only frequently finger and feel. (Doc. # 7-1 at 8-11). Plaintiff claims that “when the record . . . is considered in its entirety, the combined effects of Mr. Yaden's physical impairments, reflect that he could not perform a wide range of even light work on a regular and sustained basis.” Id. at 9. Plaintiff makes three assertions in support of his argument. First, Plaintiff suggests that the ALJ improperly weighed the severity of Plaintiff's medical impairments. Id. at 10. Second, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ did not consider the entirety of the record. Id. at 10-11. Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should have given controlling weight to the medical opinions of treating source Dr. Christopher Basham. Id. at 11. The Court will address each argument separately.

         a. Severity of Impairments

          Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred by failing to find his aortic aneurysm, chronic cholecystitis, mild hepatomegaly, right renal cysts, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, gastroesophageal reflux disease, hyperglycemia, and obesity to be severe impairments during Step Two of her analysis. (Id. at 10). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's finding that his only severe impairment is arthritis of carpometacarpal joint of thumbs is “completely erroneous” and claims that he has additional severe ...


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