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White v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

September 25, 2019

LINDA SUE WHITE, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JOSEPH M. HOOD, SENIOR U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Linda Sue White brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to challenge Defendant Commissioner’s final decision denying Plaintiff’s application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits. [DE 1]. The specific matters currently before the Court include Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 15] and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 19]. Both matters are now ripe for decision, and for the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 15] will be denied, and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 19] will be granted. Accordingly, the Court will affirm the Commissioner’s decision, as it is supported by substantial evidence.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On January 13, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for disability insurance benefits, alleging her disability began on November 1, 2013. [Tr. 94-96, 268]. At the time of Plaintiff’s alleged disability onset date, she was 44 years old. [Tr. 95]. Plaintiff earned a GED, a high school equivalency diploma, and her past relevant work was as a gas station attendant, daycare provider, and cook. [Tr. 269]. In Plaintiff’s application materials, she initially alleged she was unable to work due to having Parkinson’s disease and a nervous breakdown. [Tr. 95, 268].

         Plaintiff’s treatment notes show that on November 24, 2013, she was voluntarily admitted to a hospital for three (3) days following an attempted overdose. [Tr. 641-56]. On January 20, 2014, Plaintiff reported that she could get her child up for school, do light household cleaning, and spent most of her days alone because “being around people ma[de] [her] upset.” [Tr. 287-95]. As will be discussed further herein, on February 13, 2014, Plaintiff was evaluated by Robert W. Genthner, Ph.D. [Tr. 597-607]. On August 17, 2014, Plaintiff was admitted to another hospital for four (4) days for care due to severe panic attacks, suicidal ideation, and self-mutilating behavior. [Tr. 674-82]. Following Plaintiff’s inpatient care, she continued receiving mental health care. [Tr. 714-31, 819-26, 827-61].

         Plaintiff’s claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. [Tr. 94, 107]. After a June 8, 2015, hearing [Tr. 64-93], on July 31, 2015, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) reviewed the evidence of record and denied Plaintiff’s application. [Tr. 124-41]. However, on August 3, 2016, the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ’s July 31, 2015, decision [Tr. 124-41] and remanded this case for further consideration of Plaintiff’s maximum residual functional capacity (“RFC”), the medical opinion evidence, and the vocational evidence. [Tr. 142-46].

         On January 30, 2017, the ALJ held a second hearing, [Tr. 28-63], and on May 3, 2017, the ALJ reviewed the evidence of record and denied Plaintiff’s application. [Tr. 8-27]. In denying Plaintiff’s application, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “non epileptic psychogenic seizure-like disorder; major depressive disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; post traumatic stress disorder; degenerative joint disease of the bilateral knees; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome.” [Tr. 14 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)]. Despite the ALJ finding Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) with the following physical limitations: no climbing of ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; occasional climbing of stairs or ramps, frequent balancing, stooping, or crouching; no kneeling or crawling; and no exposure to concentrated vibration or industrial hazards. [Tr. 16]. The ALJ found Plaintiff’s mental limitations to be as follows: requires entry-level work with simple repetitive procedures; can tolerate occasional changes in work routines; work must have no requirement for detailed or complex problem solving, independent planning, or the setting of goals; should work in an object-oriented environment with only occasional and causal contact with coworkers, supervisors, or the general public; and should not work at a fast-paced assembly line or where she is subject to rigid production quotas. [Tr. 16].

         The ALJ, accepting the vocational expert’s testimony, found Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a gas station attendant, daycare provider, and cook. [Tr. 18-19]. However, again accepting the vocational expert’s testimony, the ALJ determined there are other jobs Plaintiff could perform in the national economy, and Plaintiff was, therefore, found to not be disabled. [Tr. 19-20]. On April 4, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s May 3, 2017, decision [Tr. 8-27]. [Tr. 1-5].

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, on May 18, 2018, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff sought review through an action in this Court. [DE 1]. On August 21, 2018, Defendant filed an Answer [DE 9] contending, “Plaintiff’s Complaint represents a Prayer for Relief to which no responsive pleading is required. To the extent that the Prayer for Relief is deemed to allege facts to which a response is required, the Defendant denies the allegations.” [DE 9, at 1]. Pursuant to the Court’s August 22, 2018, Standing Scheduling Order [DE 11], Plaintiff was directed to “move for summary judgment or judgment on the pleadings within sixty (60) days.” [DE 11, at 2].

         As will be discussed further herein, on November 20, 2018, Plaintiff filed the present Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 15], with an accompanying Memorandum in Support [DE 15-2], arguing, in summary, that the ALJ erred by “relying on vocational testimony to fulfill his step 5 burden without properly addressing Plaintiff’s objections memorandum and failing to discuss the rebuttal evidence related to the vocational expert’s testimony” and “by failing to properly evaluate the medical opinion evidence consistent with the regulations, Agency policy, and Sixth Circuit precedent.” [DE 15-2, at 1]. Responding to Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 15], on December 20, 2018, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 19] arguing, in summary, that the ALJ’s decision [Tr. 8-27] was supported by substantial evidence because “[t]he ALJ reasonably relied on vocational expert testimony that was consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles” and “reasonably considered and weighed the opinion evidence of record.” [DE 19, at 3-10].

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a reviewing court “must affirm the Commissioner’s conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.” Longworth v. Comm’r Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). The scope of judicial review is limited to the record itself, and the reviewing court “may not try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in evidence, nor decide questions of credibility.” Hogg v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 328, 331 (6th Cir. 1993) (citations omitted).

         The Sixth Circuit has held that “substantial evidence exists when a reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate to support a conclusion.” Warner v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). The limited nature of substantial evidence review prevents the reviewing court from substituting its judgment for that of the ALJ. Rather, so long as substantial evidence exists, the reviewing court should affirm the ALJ’s decision “even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion.” Longworth, 402 F.3d at 595 (citations omitted). Substantial evidence is “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.” Rogers v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted).

         “In determining whether the Secretary's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, [the Court] must examine the evidence in the record ‘taken as a whole . . . .’” Wyatt v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992) (citing Allen v. Califano, 613 F.2d 139, 145 (6th Cir. 1980)). Additionally, the Court “‘must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.’” Wyatt, 974 F.3d at 683 (citing Beavers v. Secretary of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 577 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1978). “The substantial evidence standard presupposes that there is a ‘zone of choice’ within which the [Commissioner] may proceed without interference from the courts.” Felisky v. Bowen, 35 F.3d 1027, 1035 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). “If the Secretary’s findings are supported by substantial evidence, then we must affirm the Secretary’s decision even though as triers of fact we might have arrived at a different result.” Elkins v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 658 F.2d 437, 439 (6th Cir. 1981).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Under the Social Security Act, the term “disability” means an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A five-step sequential evaluation process is used to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. In summary, the five-step sequential evaluation process is as follows:

The first step is to determine whether the claimant is engaged in significant gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). If not, the second step is to determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment, which is “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” § 416.920(c). If there is a severe impairment, the third step is to determine whether the impairment meets or exceeds the criteria of one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1. § 416.920(d). If the claimant does not satisfy one of the listings, the [fourth step] is to determine whether the claimant's impairment prevents him from performing his past relevant work. § 416.920(e). If it does not, the claimant is found not disabled. [At the fifth step, ] [i]f the impairment prevents a return to former work, the claimant's residual functional capacity must be determined, id., and it is then considered in conjunction with the claimant's age, work experience and education in order to ascertain whether the impairment or combination of impairments prevents the claimant from doing other work. § 416.920(f); see also Subpart P, Appendix 2, Tables 1–3.

Williamson v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 796 F.2d 146, 149 (6th Cir. 1986); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.

         The claimant “bear[s] the burden at step one of showing that he is not working, at step two that he has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments, and at step four that the impairment prevents him from performing his past work.” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n. 5 (1987). “[T]he Secretary bears the burden of proof at step five, which determines whether the claimant is able to perform work available in the national economy.” Id.

         Since the Parties’ cross Motions for Summary Judgment [DE 15; DE 19] concern the same facts, the Court will consider the Parties’ Motions [DE 15; DE 19] together. The issues presently before the Court are whether the ALJ erred by “relying on vocational testimony to fulfill his step 5 burden without properly addressing Plaintiff’s objections memorandum and failing to discuss the rebuttal evidence related to the vocational expert’s testimony” or “by failing to properly evaluate the medical opinion evidence consistent with the regulations, Agency policy, and Sixth Circuit precedent.” [DE 15-2, at 1]. The only step at issue is step five.

         A. WHETHER THE ALJ FAILED TO PROPERLY ADDRESS PLAINTIFF’S OBJECTIONS AND DISCUSS THE REBUTTAL EVIDENCE RELATED TO THE VOCATIONAL EXPERT’S TESTIMONY

         Plaintiff states that following the vocational expert’s testimony, “Plaintiff submitted her Post-Hearing Memorandum of Law& Objections to the Vocation Witness’ Testimony (objections memorandum) wherein she presented specific objections/challenges to that testimony, as well as submitted rebuttal evidence.” [DE 15-2, at 3 (citing [Tr. 433-73])]. Plaintiff then argues that “despite Plaintiff’s constitutional and statutory right to have objections and rebuttal evidence ruled upon and considered, the ALJ did not acknowledge or address the rebuttal evidence at all, ...


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