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Reed v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division

December 21, 2017

DENNY L. REED Plaintiff,

          Black, J.


          Stephanie K. Bowman United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Denny Reed filed this Social Security appeal in order to challenge the Defendant's denial of his disability claim after remand from this Court. See 42 U.S.C. §405(g). Proceeding through counsel, Plaintiff presents two claims of error. For the reasons explained below, I conclude that the ALJ's finding of non-disability is supported by substantial evidence and should be AFFIRMED.

         I. Summary of Administrative Record

         The instant appeal represents Plaintiff's second appearance before this Court. He initially filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on March 9, 2011, alleging disability primarily due to a back impairment, beginning on December 23, 2008. After his claim was denied through the administrative process, including after an evidentiary hearing and written decision by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) in 2013, Plaintiff appealed to this Court. On September 15, 2015, the undersigned reversed the ALJ's 2013 decision, and remanded for further review of the evidence under sentence four of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 507-517). Following remand from this Court, the Appeals Counsel vacated the prior decision and reassigned the case to a new ALJ.[1]

         A new evidentiary hearing was held on July 12, 2016 before ALJ Jeffrey Hartranft, at which Plaintiff, a medical expert, and a vocational expert all gave testimony. (Tr. 524-581). On September 16, 2016, ALJ Hartranft issued a new adverse decision. (Tr. 467-479). Plaintiff did not seek further Appeals Council review of this second adverse DIB decision but instead, timely filed this appeal to obtain additional federal judicial review. (Tr. 465).

         Plaintiff was 36 years old on the date of his alleged disability, and was 38 years old on December 31, 2010, when he was last insured for purposes of DIB. (Tr. 478). He had a high school education and past relevant skilled work as a welder, an auto services manager, a drywaller, a salesman, mechanic, autobody repair, and mobile home utility worker, as well as additional work as a material handler and airport utility worker at the semi-skilled level, and unskilled work as a lumbar handler. (Id.)

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from severe impairments of lumbar degenerative disc disease; status post burst fracture at ¶ 3, with fusion at ¶ 2-4 and diabetes mellitus. (Tr. 470). However, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not meet or equal any listing in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, such that Plaintiff was entitled to a presumption of disability. (Tr. 471). Instead, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a limited range of sedentary work with the following restrictions:

[H]e was able to stand and walk for 15 minutes at a time, for a total of two hours in an eight-hour day. He could sit for one hour at a time, then needed to get up briefly, which could be combined with the usual breaks or other workplace tasks, but as a result he would be off task five percent of the workday in addition to the usual breaks. He could occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ramps and stairs, but should not climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. He could frequently balance. He should avoid workplace hazards such as unprotected heights and machinery. He was unable to operate foot controls with the right lower extremity.

(Tr. 472).

         There is no dispute that Plaintiff cannot perform any of his past work. However, based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff would have been able to perform a substantial number of jobs in the national economy, including the representative unskilled occupations of assembler, inspector, and sorter, prior to the date that he was last insured. (Tr. 479). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability. (Id.)

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred when he: (1) failed to find that Plaintiff's spine disorder met the criteria of Listing 1.04A; and (2) improperly credited the opinions of the medical expert over the opinions of his treating physicians. I find no error.

         II. Analysis

         A. Judicial Standard of Review

         To be eligible for benefits, a claimant must be under a “disability.” See 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a). Narrowed to its statutory meaning, a “disability” includes only physical or mental impairments that are both “medically determinable” and severe enough to prevent the applicant from (1) performing his or her past job and (2) engaging in “substantial gainful activity” that is available in the regional or national economies. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 469-70 (1986).

         When a court is asked to review the Commissioner's denial of benefits, the court's first inquiry is to determine whether the ALJ's non-disability finding is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (additional citation and internal quotation omitted). In conducting this review, the court should consider the record as a whole. Hephner v. Mathews, 574 F.2d 359, 362 (6th Cir. 1978). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's denial of benefits, then that finding must be affirmed, even if substantial evidence also exists in the record to support a finding of disability. Felisky v. Bowen, 35 F.3d 1027, 1035 (6th Cir. 1994). As the Sixth Circuit has explained:

The Secretary's findings are not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence exists in the record to support a different conclusion.... The substantial evidence standard presupposes that there is a ‘zone of choice' within which the Secretary may proceed without interference from the courts. If the Secretary's decision is supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court must affirm.

Id. (citations omitted).

         Whether considering an application for supplemental security income or for disability benefits, the Social Security Agency is guided by the following sequential benefits analysis: at Step 1, the Commissioner asks if the claimant is still performing substantial gainful activity; at Step 2, the Commissioner determines if one or more of the claimant's impairments are “severe;” at Step 3, the Commissioner analyzes whether the claimant's impairments, singly or in combination, meet or equal a Listing in the Listing of Impairments; at Step 4, the Commissioner determines whether or not the claimant can still perform his or her past relevant work; and finally, at Step 5, if it is established that claimant can no longer perform his or her past relevant work, the burden of proof shifts to the agency to determine whether a significant number of other jobs which the claimant can perform exist in the national economy. See Combs v. Com'r of Soc. Sec., 459 F.3d 640, 643 (6th Cir. 2006); 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520, 416.920.

         A plaintiff bears the ultimate burden to prove by sufficient evidence that he is entitled to disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a). A claimant seeking benefits must present sufficient evidence to show that, during the relevant time period, he suffered an impairment, or combination of impairments, expected to last at ...

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