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Kerr v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 16, 2019




         Plaintiff Shannon Marie Kerr (“Kerr”) filed this action seeking review of the denial of disability insurance benefits by Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). [DE 1]. The Court referred Kerr's action to Magistrate Judge H. Brent Brennenstuhl (“Magistrate Judge”). [DE 11]. After Kerr filed a motion for summary judgment, the Magistrate Judge issued Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Recommendation (“R&R”) that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed. [DE 14]. Kerr objected, arguing that the Magistrate Judge incorrectly found that Administrative Law Judge Roger L. Reynolds's (“ALJ”) failure to articulate “good reasons” was harmless error. [DE 15 at 713] (“It is submitted that the finding of harmless error by the Magistrate Judge regarding the Administrative Law Judge's failure to sufficiently articulate good reasons for discounting the treating physicians' opinions in this case is error”). The Commissioner responded [DE 16]. This matter is ripe. For the reasons below, the Court OVERRULES Kerr's Objections [DE 15], and ACCEPTS the Magistrate Judge's R&R without modification [DE 14].

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Kerr applied for disability insurance benefits (DIB) in November, 2014, alleging that she has been disabled since August, 2014. [DE 8-2 at 49]. After the Commissioner denied her claim both initially and upon reconsideration, Kerr appeared before the ALJ. Id. at 49. The ALJ ruled against Kerr and found:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2020.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 20, 2014, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: obesity; migraine headaches; seizure disorder; chronic neck and low back pain status post C5-6 discectomy and fusion, and L5/S1 discectomy and fusion; chronic fatigue syndrome; diverticulosis; history of kidney stones; bilateral carpel tunnel syndrome; adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressive symptoms (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform less than the Full Range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a). The claimant can occasionally lift/carry up to 10 pounds, frequently less than 10 pounds; requires a sit/stand option with no prolonged standing or walking in excess of thirty minutes without interruption, no sitting in excess of one hour without interruption; no climbing of ropes, ladders or scaffolds, occasional climbing of stairs or ramps, occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching or crawling, no aerobic activities such as running or jumping, no work with hands over the head; no operations of foot pedal controls; no exposure to concentrated temperature extremes, excess humidity, concentrated vibration or industrial hazards; no commercial driving and no work at heights; requires entry level work with simple repetitive procedures, can tolerate only occasional changes in work routines, and should work in an object oriented environment with only occasional and casual contact with coworkers, supervisors or the general public.

Id. at 51-53 (emphasis added).

         When the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision in February, 2018, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. [DE 12 at 671]; Clore v. Astrue, No. 1:08CV77-J, 2009 WL 1010875, at *2 (W.D. Ky. Apr. 14, 2009) (citing Cotton v. Secretary, 2 F.3d 692, 696 (6th Cir., 1993)). Kerr brought this action to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. [DE 1 at 2]. After reviewing the record and relevant law, the Magistrate Judge found that the ALJ erred by not adequately explaining the weight he gave to Kerr's treating physician's opinions, but that the error was harmless. [DE 14 at 710]. The Magistrate Judge therefore recommended that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision, deny Kerr's motion for summary judgment, and dismiss Kerr's complaint. [DE 14]. Kerr objects. [DE 15].

         II. STANDARD

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), a district court may “designate a magistrate judge to conduct hearings, including evidentiary hearings, and to submit to a judge of the court proposed findings of facts and recommendations for the disposition” of matters including review of the Commissioner's final decision on disability insurance benefits. This Court must “make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specific proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). After reviewing the evidence, the Court may accept, reject, or modify the proposed findings or recommendations of the magistrate. Id.

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner employed the proper legal standards in reaching her conclusion. Brainard v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.,889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 1989) (citing Richardson v. Perales,402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citing Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). “The substantial-evidence standard allows considerable latitude to administration decision makers. It presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which the decision makers can go either way, without interferences by the courts.” Mackins v. Astrue,655 F.Supp.2d 770, 775 (W.D. Ky. 2009) (quoting Mullen v. Secretary,800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir., 1986)). The ALJ need not discuss every aspect of the record or explain every finding at length but must “articulate with specificity reasons for the findings and conclusions that he or she makes” to facilitate meaningful judicial review. Bailey v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 98-3061, 1999 WL 96920, at *4 (6th Cir. Feb. ...

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