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Holt v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

September 4, 2013

WAYNE R. HOLT, Plaintiff,

OPINION & ORDER [Resolving Doc. Nos. 1, 17, 18, & 19]

JAMES S. GWIN, District Judge.

Magistrate Judge James R. Knepp, II recommends this Court affirm the Social Security Commissioner's denial of supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits to Plaintiff Wayne R. Holt.[1] Because substantial evidence supported the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) conclusion that Plaintiff Holt was not disabled and because the ALJ did not abuse her discretion in concluding that cognitive testing was unnecessary, the Court ADOPTS the recommendations of the Magistrate Judge and AFFIRMS the Commissioner's denial of benefits.

I. Background

On January 2, 2009, Plaintiff Holt filed applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits. With the application, Holt said he was disabled because of herniated discs resulting from a car accident on September 6, 2008.[2] On September 28, 2010, at a hearing before ALJ Sue Leise, Holt was represented by counsel.[3]

At the hearing, Plaintiff Holt's counsel said Plaintiff was seeking to receive disability under Disability Impairment Listing ("Listing") 1.04[4] for a spinal disorder. Holt alternatively asked to be sent for cognitive testing under Listing 12.05C.[5]

At the ALJ hearing, Plaintiff Holt also testified.[6] In addition to testifying about his back pain, Holt said that he had taken special education classes in high school.[7] He said that his last job was at Lube Stop doing oil changes and rotating and fixing tires.[8] He said that he stopped working after a car accident.[9] Holt testified about his prior jobs, including working at Walmart's tire lube express department and as a food picker at Sherwood Food Distributors.[10] Plaintiff Holt said that he typically spent his days watching television, doing crossword puzzles, listening to the radio, and occasionally going out to shops.[11]

At the end of the hearing, Plaintiff's counsel raised Psychologist Suzanne Castro's evaluation of Plaintiff Holt.[12] Dr. Castro had examined Plaintiff in connection with an earlier application for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits.[13] In her notes, she indicated that "Clmt is alleging back pain (assessed separately) and being a slow learner. No school records were received.... Psych CE with intelligence testing is needed, as well as ADL information, and therefore there is insufficient evidence to determine severity and functional limitations of clmt's psych allegations."[14]

After referencing Dr. Castro's exam, Plaintiff's counsel requested permission to provide additional evidence regarding Plaintiff's mental capability and brief Plaintiff's position on this issue.[15] The ALJ agreed to allow this.[16] Though Plaintiff Holt ultimately submitted his school records for consideration, [17] it does not appear that he ever submitted such a brief.

On December 23, 2010, the ALJ issued her decision.[18] In addition to finding that degenerative disc disease did not disable Plaintiff under Listing 1.04, the ALJ found Holt did not show a medically determinable learning or intellectual functioning impairment.[19] Although Plaintiff Holt had received poor grades, the ALJ reasoned that Holt's poor attendance (missing 89 days of school in one year) likely contributed to this. The ALJ also found Holt did not show that he had specialized learning plans to confirm Holt's participation in special education.[20]

In addition, ALJ Leise found no reference from Holt's treating physicians of concern about his intellectual functioning.[21] The ALJ noted that Plaintiff Holt appeared to be able to (1) provide information to his doctors, (2) understand his prescribed treatment, and (3) correctly complete application forms for disability benefits.[22] From this evidence - and without ordering cognitive testing - ALJ Leise concluded that Plaintiff Holt did not qualify as disabled under any of the impairment listings.[23]

Holt appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration.[24] On August 30, 2012, the Appeals Council denied his request for review.[25] Holt thereafter sought review in this Court.[26] On August 6, 2013, Magistrate Judge Knepp issued his Report and recommended the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.[27] Holt objected to the Report and Recommendation, [28] and the Commissioner filed a response on September 3, 2013.[29] The case is now ripe for decision.

II. Legal Standards

To establish disability under the Social Security Act, a claimant must show that she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity because of a "medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months."[30] Agency regulations establish a five-step sequential evaluation for use in determining whether a claimant is disabled. The claimant's impairment must prevent him from doing him previous work, as well as any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy.[31]

The Federal Magistrates Act requires a district court to conduct de novo review of the claimant's objections to a report and recommendation.[32] A final decision of the Social Security Commissioner made by an ALJ is, however, not reviewed de novo. A district court only determines whether the ALJ's decision is ...

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