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Phillips v. Saul

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

September 25, 2019




         Plaintiff, Jonathan Phillips, brings this matter under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of an administrative decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security. [DE 1]. The Court, having reviewed the record and the motions, [DE 7; DE 9], filed by the parties, will AFFIRM the Commissioner’s decision as no legal error occurred and it is supported by substantial evidence.


         Under the Social Security Act, a disability is defined as “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). In determining disability, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) uses a five-step analysis. See Jones v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). Step One considers whether the claimant is still performing substantial gainful activity; Step Two, whether any of the claimant’s impairments 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 significant numbers of other jobs exist in the national economy which the claimant can perform. As to the last step, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the Commissioner. Id.; see also Preslar v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).


         Phillips filed an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), alleging disability beginning on March 11, 2015, the date he injured his back in a work-related incident. [TR 198-199]. Phillips’s application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. [TR 100-01]. Phillips then pursued his claims before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Dennis Hansen. [TR 39-57]. The ALJ held the hearing on September 7, 2017. [TR 39]. The ALJ found that Phillips suffered an impairment to his back that rendered him disabled from the alleged onset date of March 11, 2015 through May 5, 2016, and that he was no longer disabled. [TR 18-32]. The Appeals Council denied Phillips’ request for review. [TR 1-5].

         This appeal followed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). [DE 1]. Consistent with the Court’s Standing Scheduling Order, [DE 6], the parties have submitted cross motions for summary judgment, which are ripe for review. [DE 7, 9].

         Phillips alleges onset of disability at 27 years of age. [TR 198]. Phillips has a high school education. [TR 237]. Phillips’ engaged in past relevant work as a maintenance worker at a school and as a transporter/maintenance worker at a nursing home. [Id.].

         Phillips claims disability due to his work-related back injury, as well as a learning disability and hearing problems. [TR 236]. At the hearing in front of the ALJ, Phillips testified that he can only stand for about 10 minutes before needing to sit down. [TR 41-51]. Phillips further testified that he can only sit for approximately 10 minutes before needing to readjust and he cannot lift 10 pounds. [Id.].

         Phillips testified that he lives at home with his wife and daughter. [TR 42]. Phillips further testified that he does not go to the grocery store, nor is he able to help with chores around the house. [Id.]. However, he did testify that he is able to drive “every now and then[.]” [TR 43]. To find relief, Phillips claims that has to lay down about 6 times a day for about an hour each time. [Id.]. Phillips testified that he also uses ice packs, which help some with relieving pain. [TR 47].

         In March 2015, Phillips went to the ER with complaints of back pain after falling off a ladder several days prior. [TR 389-95]. Upon March and April follow-up appointments with Dr. Dahhan, M.D. On April 10, 2015, Phillips submitted to an MRI examination, which revealed disc protrusion contributing to severe central stenosis. [TR 397-431, 447-51, 581-82]. As a result, Dr. Dahhan recommended that Phillips not lift over twenty-five pounds for several months, but advised that Phillips could return to light work. [TR 541].

         Phillips followed up with Dr. William Brooks throughout the rest of 2015 and early 2016. [TR 444-47. 543-61]. In January of 2016, Phillips underwent a bilateral discectomy at L4-L5. [TR 497-524]. Following surgery, Phillips undertook physical therapy. [TR 570-846, 880-81].

         Dr. Brooks recommended Phillips not work until a functional capacity evaluation (“FCE”) had been done. [TR 543]. He subsequently recommended that Phillips undergo such an evaluation, which Phillips did. [TR 850-61]. The FCE occurred on May 6, 2016. Thereafter, Dr. Brooks concluded that Phillips had reached maximum medical improvement (“MMI”) as of the date of the FCE, had a whole person impairment of thirteen (13%) percent, and could perform sedentary work. [TR 541]. Following the FCE, Phillips continued to follow-up with complaints of low back and leg pain. [TRE 935-51, 973-76, 980-83]. A state agency doctor, Diosdado Irlandez concluded that Phillips could carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand and walk two hours in an eight-hour workday; sit six hours; occasionally use his legs; occasionally crawl, stoop, and climb ramps and stairs, frequently kneel and crouch; never climb ladders, ropers, or scaffolds; and should avoid even moderate exposure to vibration and all exposure to hazards. [TR. 114-17].

         In addition to his issues with his back, Phillips also sought treatment related to his psychological condition. In particular, Phillips received an evaluation from Dr. William Rigby, Ph.D., who diagnosed Phillips with anxiety, and had mild mental work-related limitations. [TR 911-16]. Dr. Rigby opined that Phillips psychological impairments area likely to continue indefinitely. [Id.].

         In addition to Dr. Rigby, Kirstin Bailey, Ph.D., a state psychologist, also reviewed Phillips’ medical records and concluded they were not severe. [TR 89-92]. Another psychologist, Dan Vandivier, Ph.D., concurred with Dr. Bailey’s conclusion. [TR 110-113].

         After the hearing and considering all the evidence, the ALJ issued his decision on December 7, 2017. [TR 33]. At Step One, the ALJ determined that Phillips had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 11, 2015. [TR 22].

         At Step Two, the ALJ found that from March 11, 2015 through May 4, 205, the period during which the Phillips was under a disability, Phillips suffered from the following severe impairments: obesity, lumber degenerative disc disease, and borderline intellectual functioning. [TR 22]. The ALJ also found that Phillips suffered the following acute conditions, all of which lasted less than twelve months: otitis media, allergic rhinitis, and gastritis. [Id.].

         The ALJ noted that Phillips was diagnosed by Dr. Rigby with anxiety disorder, but Phillips did not meet the full diagnostic criteria for the condition. [Id.]. As a result, the ALJ found that Phillips anxiety was not a severe impairment within the meaning of the applicable regulations. [Id.].

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that from March 11, 2015 through May 5, 2015, the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any of the listed impairments. [TR 22]. In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ found that Phillips had the following degree of limitation in functioning: moderate limitation in understanding, remembering, or applying information; a moderate limitation in interacting with others; a moderate limitation in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and a moderate limitation in adapting or managing oneself. [Id.]. The ALJ further found that that Phillips’ mental impairments had not changed during any time relevant to the decision. [TR 22].

         Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ found that Phillips had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a). [TR 23]. Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform the following tasks:

The opportunity to change positions from sitting to standing and vice versa every ten minutes; could occasionally climb ramps and stairs; could occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; could occasionally push and pull with lower extremities; should avoid exposure to vibration; could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; could never be exposed to unprotected heights or dangerous moving machinery; could perform work where the requirements do not exceed a 7th grade arithmetic and 4th grade reading ability; could understand and remember simple instructions; could sustain attention and concentration to complete simple tasks with regular breaks every 2 hours; could have ...

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