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Mounts v. Berryhill

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

January 2, 2020

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER


         Joshua Mounts appeals the Commissioner's denial of his application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. The parties filed dueling summary judgment motions. The Court, having considered the full record under governing law, GRANTS the Commissioner's motion (DE 11) and DENIES Mounts's motion (DE 9) because substantial evidence supports the findings resulting in the administrative decision, and the decision rests on proper legal standards.


         Mounts is currently 45 years old. See, e.g., R. at 31. He alleges disability beginning on December 2, 2006. See R. at 174. Mounts previously applied, then alleging an August 1, 2007, onset date, for DIB (under Title II) and SSI (under Title XVI) benefits in January 2013. R. at 43. After initial and reconsideration denials, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Gloria York held a hearing in September 2014. Id. ALJ York denied Mounts's claims on November 5, 2014. R. at 54- 55. Mounts sought no further review. R. at 12.

         Mounts reapplied for (only SSI) benefits in March 2016. R. at 174. The SSA denied his claim initially on June 17, 2016, see R. at 99-102, and upon reconsideration on September 28, 2016. See R. at 106-07. Following Mounts's November 2016, request, see R. at 120, ALJ Tommye Mangus held a hearing on October 13, 2017. R. at 29-39. At the hearing, attorney Patrick House represented Mounts. See R. at 29. Claimant and impartial vocational expert Bill Ellis testified. R. at 31-38. ALJ Mangus subsequently denied Mounts's claim on February 12, 2018. R. at 11-21. The Appeals Council denied review, and thus upheld the ALJ's decision, on August 16, 2018. R. at 1-3.

         The ALJ made several particular findings in the required sequence. She determined that Mounts had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his March 30, 2016, application. R. at 14. The ALJ next determined that Mounts had several severe impairments. Id. However, ALJ Mangus then found that Mounts did “not have an impairment or combination of impairments that [met] or medically equal[ed] the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1[.]” R. at 14-16. The ALJ further made a detailed residual functional capacity (RFC) finding. R. at 16-20. Although ALJ Mangus found that Mounts had “no past relevant work, ” the ALJ determined that, given Mounts's particular characteristics and RFC, “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Mounts] can perform[.]” R. at 20-21. Based on these considerations, the ALJ ruled that Mounts was not under a disability from March 25, 2016, through the date of decision. See R. at 12, 21. Dissatisfied with the result of the SSA's subsequent administrative process, which denied him relief, Mounts turned to federal court for review.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         The Court has carefully considered the ALJ's decision, the transcript of the administrative hearing, and the administrative record. The Court has turned every apt[1] sheet, primarily focusing on the portions of the record to which the parties specifically cite. See DE 6 (General Order 13-7), at ¶ 3(c) (“The parties shall provide the Court with specific page citations to the administrative record to support their arguments. The Court will not undertake an open-ended review of the entirety of the administrative record to find support for the parties' arguments.”).

         Judicial review of the ALJ's decision to deny disability benefits is a limited and deferential inquiry into whether substantial evidence supports the denial's factual decisions and whether the ALJ properly applied relevant legal standards. Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009); Jordan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 548 F.3d 417, 422 (6th Cir. 2008); Brainard v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 1989) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427 (1971)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (providing and defining judicial review for Social Security claims) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive[.]”).

         Substantial evidence means “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); see also Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004). The Court does not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or assess questions of credibility. Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007). Similarly, the Court does not reverse findings of the Acting Commissioner or the ALJ merely because the record contains evidence-even substantial evidence-to support a different conclusion. Warner, 375 F.3d at 390. Rather, the Court must affirm the ALJ's decision if substantial evidence supports it, even if the Court might have decided the case differently if in the ALJ's shoes. See Longworth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005); Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999).

         The ALJ, when determining disability, conducts a five-step analysis. See Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); id. at § 416.920(a)(4).[2] At Step 1, the ALJ considers whether the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity. See Preslar, 14 F.3d at 1110; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At Step 2, the ALJ determines whether one or more of the claimant's impairments are severe. Preslar, 14 F.3d at 1110; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). At Step 3, the ALJ analyzes whether the claimant's impairments, alone or in combination, meet or equal an entry in the Listing of Impairments. Preslar, 14 F.3d at 1110; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). At Step 4, the ALJ determines RFC and whether the claimant can perform past relevant work. Preslar, 14 F.3d at 1110; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). The inquiry at this stage (if applicable) is whether the claimant can still perform that type of work, not necessarily the specific past job. See Studaway v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 815 F.2d 1074, 1076 (6th Cir. 1987). Finally, at Step 5, when the burden shifts to the Acting Commissioner, if the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the ALJ determines whether significant numbers of other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform, given the applicable RFC. See Preslar, 14 F.3d at 1110; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); id. at § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the ALJ determines at any step that the claimant is not disabled, the analysis ends at that step. Mowery v. Heckler, 771 F.2d 966, 969 (6th Cir. 1985); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); id. at § 416.920(a)(4).

         When reviewing the ALJ's application of the legal standards, the Court gives deference to her interpretation of the law and reviews the decision for reasonableness and consistency with governing statutes. Whiteside v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 834 F.2d 1289, 1292 (6th Cir. 1987). In a Social Security benefits case, the agency's construction of the statute should be followed “unless there are compelling indications that it is wrong.” Merz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 969 F.2d 201, 203 (6th Cir. 1992) (quoting Whiteside, 834 F.2d at 1292).

         B. The ALJ did not reversibly err.

         Mounts makes two arguments: that ALJ Mangus erroneously revised ALJ York's earlier mental RFC finding, DE 9 at 6-10, and that Judge Mangus erred in declining to reopen Mounts's January 14, 2013, applications for benefits, id. at 10-11. The Court evaluates each in turn.

         RFC Revision

         In 2014, ALJ York, as to limitations springing from Plaintiff's mental impairments, [3] found Mounts “limited to routine, repetitive tasks which require only occasional interaction with supervisors and coworkers and no interaction with the general public in a job which is not fastpaced and has low production quotas.” R. at 49.[4] ALJ Mangus, however, found that the “current evidence suggests that the claimant has only mild issues with concentration or attention[.]” R. at 19. Accordingly, ALJ Mangus found that Mounts, “mentally, [ ] can only perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a non-public work environment that requires only occasional interaction with ...

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