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Griffin v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division

August 27, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT


          Regina S. Edwards, Magistrate Judge United States District Court

         The Commissioner of Social Security denied Virginia Griffin's application for disability insurance benefits. Griffin seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Both Griffin (DN 13) and the Commissioner (DN 17) have filed a Fact and Law Summary. The parties have consented, under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge conducting all further proceedings in this case, including issuance of a memorandum opinion and entry of judgment, with direct review by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in the event an appeal is filed. (DN 14).

         I. Background

         Virginia Griffin is 56 years old, lives with her sister and her sister's two children, and has an associate's degree. (Tr. 51-52). Griffin worked for Breckinridge Health as an executive secretary from 1996-2002, then as IT director from 2002-2014.[1] (Tr. 53). She claims she stopped working in 2014 after being diagnosed with breast cancer and cancer in her lymph nodes because she didn't have the physical strength to complete tasks and did not have the mental capacity or will to work. (Tr. 58). In April of 2014, Griffin underwent surgery to remove the “invasive mammary carcinoma” and the cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. (Tr. 54). Griffin claims that her post-surgery recovery was difficult and led to permanent lymphedema in her right arm. (Tr. 55). This lymphedema, Griffin complains, causes pain in her shoulder, back, and arm while sitting down and prevents her from performing basic household chores and from working. (Tr. 59-60).

         Griffin applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) from the Social Security Administration under Title II, claiming she became disabled on January 31, 2014 (Tr. 241), as a result of stage 1 breast cancer, stage 1 cancer of the lymph nodes, sleep apnea, anxiety, and depression. (Tr. 245). Her application was denied initially (Tr. 107) and again on reconsideration (Tr. 123). Administrative Law Judge Jennifer Thomas (“ALJ Thomas”) conducted a hearing in Paducah, Kentucky, on June 13, 2017. (Tr. 49). Griffin appeared by video with her attorney in Owensboro, Kentucky. (Id.). An impartial vocational expert also testified at the hearing. (Id.). ALJ Thomas issued an unfavorable decision on September 11, 2017. (Tr. 40).

         ALJ Thomas applied the traditional five-step sequential analysis promulgated by the Commissioner for evaluating a disability claim, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, Kyle v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 609 F.3d 847, 855 (6th Cir. 2010), and found as follows. First, Griffin has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 31, 2014. (Tr. 30). Second, Griffin has the following severe impairments: “history of breast cancer; right arm lymphedema, depression and anxiety[.]” (Id.). Third, none of Griffin's impairments or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment from 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. (Tr. 31). Between the third and fourth steps, ALJ Thomas found Griffin has the residual functional capacity to perform “light work” with the following limitations:

[s]he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. She can frequently reach overhead and all around with her right upper extremity. She can frequently handle, finger and feel with her right upper extremity. She should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold/heat, humidity, vibration, fumes, odors, gases, and poor ventilation. She should avoid all exposure to moving mechanical parts and unprotected heights. She can have frequent interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the public.

(Tr. 33). Fourth, Griffin is unable to perform her past relevant work.[2] (Tr. 39). Fifth and finally, considering Griffin's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. (Id.).

         Based on this evaluation, ALJ Thomas concluded that Griffin was not disabled, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 31, 2014 through the date of the decision. (Tr. 40). Griffin appealed ALJ Thomas' decision. The Appeals Council declined review. (Tr. 1). At that point, the denial became the final decision of the Commissioner, and Griffin sought judicial review from this Court. (DN 1).

         II. Standard of Review

         When reviewing the administrative law judge's decision to deny disability benefits, the Court may “not try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor decide questions of credibility.” Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). Instead, the Court's review of the administrative law judge's decision is limited to an inquiry as to whether the administrative law judge's findings were supported by substantial evidence, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 353 (6th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted), and whether the administrative law judge employed the proper legal standards in reaching her conclusion. See Landsaw v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 803 F.2d 211, 213 (6th Cir. 1986). Substantial evidence exists “when a reasonable mind could accept the evidence as adequate to support the challenged conclusion, even if that evidence could support a decision the other way.” Cotton v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 692, 695 (6th Cir. 1993). The Supreme Court has clarified that “whatever the meaning of ‘substantial' in other contexts, the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high[.]” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (citations omitted).

         III. Analysis

         A. Finding No. 5 - Residual Functional Capacity

         Griffin mounts two challenges to ALJ Thomas' Finding No. 5, the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination. The residual functional capacity finding is the administrative law judge's ultimate determination of what a claimant can still do despite her physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.945(a), 416.946. The administrative law judge bases her residual functional capacity finding on a review of the record as a whole, including a ...

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