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Gray v. Saul

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

September 25, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, [1] Commissioner of the Social Security Administration DEFENDANT



         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.


         Plaintiff Diana L. Gray protectively filed for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II alleging disability beginning on June 2, 2006. (Tr. 15). That application was denied on January 21, 2009, [2] and the Appeals Council denied review on October 23, 2009. Id. The Plaintiff then filed a second application under Title II alleging disability beginning on August 20, 2011. Id. That application was denied on December 22, 2014. Id. The Appeals Council, however, granted review of the 2014 decision and remanded the application for further proceedings. Id. In accordance with the Appeal Council’s directions, the record was supplemented and an administrative hearing was conducted on March 22, 2017 before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Roger L. Reynolds. (Tr. 15, 27). On July 6, 2017, ALJ Reynolds ruled that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 15–27). This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on September 14, 2018 when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. (Tr. 1–3).

         Plaintiff filed the instant action on November 15, 2018 alleging that the Commissioner’s decision was contrary to law. (Doc. # 1). The matter has culminated in cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for adjudication. (Docs. # 13 and 15).


         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).

         When a claimant files an application for benefits under the same title of the Social Security Act as a previously-determined application, the principal of res judicata places limits on the evidence that an ALJ evaluating the second application can review. The Sixth Circuit has established that “the principles of res judicata can be applied against the [SSA] Commissioner.” Drummond v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 126 F.3d 837, 842 (6th Cir. 1997). “When the Commissioner has made a final decision concerning a claimant’s entitlement to benefits, the Commissioner is bound by this determination absent changed circumstances.” Id. A prior ALJ’s legal and factual findings must not be altered unless new and material evidence is presented showing that the plaintiff’s condition has significantly changed. Id.; see also Blankenship v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 624 F. App’x 419, 425 (6th Cir. 2015).

         Here, before considering whether Gray was disabled, the ALJ determined that Gray had presented “new and material evidence relating to the development of a mental impairment and several nonsevere impairments.” (Tr. 15). As a result, under Drummond, the findings from the 2009 ALJ decision were not binding. (Tr. 16).

         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 here. 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 August 20, 2011-the alleged onset date of the disability. (Tr. 18). At Step Two, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: chronic low back pain secondary to degenerative disc disease of the lumbosacral spine with mild facet arthropathy, chronic hip pain secondary to early trochanteric bursitis, and a major depressive disorder. (Tr. 18). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s other impairments-migraine headaches, now healed fractures of the left calcaneous, and obesity-caused no more than minimal limitations on her ability to work. (Tr. 18–19). 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. 19–21).

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff possesses the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a limited range of work at the light exertional level as defined in 20 C.F.R. § ...

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