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Shaw v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 11, 2018

MELISSA K. SHAW, Plaintiff,


          Karen L. Litkovitz, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Melissa K. Shaw brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiffs applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI"). This matter is before the Court on plaintiffs Statement of Errors (Doc. 6), the Commissioner's response in opposition (Doc. 7), and plaintiffs reply (Doc. 8).

         I. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB in May 2013 and SSI in July 2013, alleging disability since December 4, 2012 due to lumbar compressive neuropathy and Sjogren's Syndrome.[1]Plaintiffs applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff, through counsel, requested and was granted a de novo hearing before ALJ Peter Jamison. Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) appeared and testified at the ALJ hearing. On September 11, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiffs DIB and SSI applications. (Tr. 13-26). Plaintiffs request for review by the Appeals Council was denied, making the decision of the ALJ the final administrative decision of the Commissioner.

         II. Analysis

         A. Legal Framework for Disability Determinations

          To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must suffer from 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 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) (DIB), l382c(a)(3)(A) (SSI). The impairment must render the claimant unable to engage in the work previously performed or in any other substantial gainful employment that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         Regulations promulgated by the Commissioner establish a five-step sequential evaluation process for disability determinations:

1) If the claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, the claimant is not disabled.
2) If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment - i.e., an impairment that significantly limits his or her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities - the claimant is not disabled.
3) If the claimant has a severe impairments) that meets or equals one of the listings in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the regulations and meets the duration requirement, the claimant is disabled.
4) If the claimant's impairment does not prevent him or her from doing his or her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled.
5) If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the claimant is disabled.

Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 582 F.3d 647, 652 (6th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 404.1520(b)-(g)). The claimant has the burden of proof at the first four steps of the sequential evaluation process. Id.; Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 378 F, 3d 541, 548 (6th Cir. 2004). Once the claimant establishes a prima facie case by showing an inability to perform the relevant previous employment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful employment and that such employment exists in the national economy. Rabbers, 582 F.3d at 652; Harmon v. Apfel, 168 F.3d 289, 291 (6th Cir. 1999).

         B. The Administrative Law Judge's Findings

         The ALJ applied the sequential evaluation process and made the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:

1. The [plaintiff met] the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017.
2. The [plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 5, 2012, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.) [].
3. The [plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia; Sjogren's Syndrome; mild to moderate osteoarthritis of bilateral hands and lumbar spine; autoimmune disorder, unspecified; dermatitis; affective disorders; and somatoform disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The [plaintiff] 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, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the [ALJ] finds that the [plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c). She can lift and carry occasionally up to 50 pounds; she can lift and carry frequently up to 25 pounds. She can stand 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, walk 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, and sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. She can climb ramps and stairs frequently; climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds occasionally; she can balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl frequently. She is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks, but not at a production-rate pace. She is limited to simple work-related decisions; she can have no more than superficial interaction with co-workers and supervisors, and only occasional interaction with the public. She can have no more than ordinary and routine changes in the work setting and duties.
6. The [plaintiff] is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and416.965).[2]
7. The [plaintiff] was born [in] ... 1960 and was 52 years old, which is defined as an individual of advanced age, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
8. The [plaintiff] has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the [plaintiff] is "not disabled, " whether or not the [plaintiff] has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
10. Considering the [plaintiff]'s age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the [plaintiff] can perform (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).[3]
11. The [plaintiff] has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from December 5, 2012, through the date of [the ALJ's] decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

(Tr. 15-25).

         C. Judicial Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's determination is limited in scope by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and involves a twofold inquiry: (1) whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence, and (2) whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. See Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 581 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2009); see also Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 478 F.3d 742, 745-46 (6th Cir. 2007).

         The Commissioner's findings must stand if they are supported by "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citing Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Substantial evidence consists of "more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance" Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). In deciding whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, the Court considers the record as a whole. Hephner v. Mathews, 574 F.2d 359 (6th Cir. 1978).

         The Court must also determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards in the disability determination. Even if substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion that the plaintiff is not disabled, "a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the SSA fails to follow its own regulations and where that error prejudices a claimant on the merits or deprives the claimant of a substantial right." Rabbers, 582 F.3d at 651 (quoting Bowen, 478 F.3d at 746). See also Wilson, 378 F.3d at 545-46 (reversal required even though ALJ's decision was otherwise supported by substantial evidence where ALJ failed to give good reasons for not giving weight to treating physician's opinion, thereby violating the agency's own regulations).

         D. Specific Errors

         On appeal, plaintiff alleges the following assignments of error: (1) the ALJ erred in evaluating plaintiffs fibromyalgia and the functional limitations imposed by her fibromyalgia; (2) the ALJ erred in weighing the medical source opinions, and specifically by giving the most weight to the opinion of the state agency reviewing physician, who did not have a complete record before her, and the least weight to the partial assessment completed by plaintiffs treating rheumatologist; (3) the ALJ erred in assessing plaintiffs credibility in light of the objective medical evidence, plaintiffs self-reports of her symptoms, limitations and medication side- effects, and plaintiffs work history; and (4) the ALJ erred by relying on vocational expert testimony that did not take into account functional hand limitations imposed by plaintiffs arthritis and mental limitations assessed by the consultative examining psychologist. (Doc. 6).

         1. The ALJ's evaluation of ...

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