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Edwards v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 16, 2018

HEATHER E. EDWARDS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          Barrett, J.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Stephanie K. Bowman, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Heather Edwards filed this Social Security appeal in order to challenge the Defendant's finding that she is not disabled. See 42 U.S.C. §405(g). Proceeding through counsel, Plaintiff presents three claims of error for this Court's review. As explained below, I conclude that the ALJ's finding of non-disability should be AFFIRMED, because it is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.

         I. Summary of Administrative Record

         Plaintiff first sought social security benefits based upon allegations of disability beginning in 2011. Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested an evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), Amelia Lombardo, who subsequently also denied her claims in a written decision dated January 23, 2013. (Tr. 107-120).

         On February 22, 2013, Plaintiff filed new applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), alleging disability beginning on January 25, 2013, two days after the prior adverse decision, based on multiple physical and mental impairments. After her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff again requested an evidentiary hearing before an ALJ. On April 17, 2015, she appeared with counsel and gave testimony before ALJ Henry Kramzyk; a vocational expert also testified. (Tr. 39-103). ALJ Kramzyk determined that new and material evidence showed a change in Plaintiff's condition, such that he was not bound by the previous ALJ's findings concerning Plaintiff's residual functional capacity for work activity. See Drummond v. Com'r of Soc Sec., 126 F.3d 837 (6th Cir. 1997). Nevertheless, after reviewing the new evidence including a new diagnosis of fibromyalgia, ALJ Kramzyk issued a new adverse written decision on September 23, 2015, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 17-32).

         Plaintiff was 39 years old at the time of her hearing. She has at least a high school education, [1] and lives with her stepfather and 12 year old disabled son. She has past relevant work as a tufting machine operator, a machine packager, an inventory control clerk, and a shaping machine operator.

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has severe impairments of fibromyalgia, major depressive disorder, panic disorder, and general anxiety disorder with social phobia. Although Plaintiff initially alleged disability due to additional impairments including but not limited to degenerative bone deterioration in her shoulders, lower back, hips, groin area, both knees and right ankle, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), the ALJ determined that none of those impairments were “severe.” (Tr. 20, 23). At the hearing, Plaintiff additionally testified to tendonitis and a bone spur in her right ankle and irritable bowel syndrome, which the ALJ also found were nonsevere. (Id.). None of Plaintiff's impairments, either alone or in combination, meet or medically equal any Listing in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, such that Plaintiff would be entitled to a presumption of disability. (Tr. 20).

         It is undisputed that Plaintiff's impairments preclude her from performing any of her past work. (Tr. 30). However, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work at a light level, with additional non-exertional limitations,

meaning she can lift or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, can sit for up to 6 hours a day, and can stand and/or walk for up to 6 hours a day. She can occasionally operate foot controls with the right lower extremity. She can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally climb ramps or stairs. She can occasionally balance, stoop, or crouch. She can never kneel or crawl. She can frequently do handling and fingering with both hands. She is able to understand, remember, and carry out short, simple, repetitive instructions. She is able to sustain attention and concentration for 2-hour periods at a time and for 8 hours in the workday on short, simple, repetitive instructions. She can use judgment in making work decisions related to short, simple, repetitive instructions. She requires an occupation with only occasional co-worker contact and supervision. She requires an occupation with set routine and procedures, and few changes during the workday. She requires an occupation with only superficial contact with the public on routine matters. She cannot perform fast-paced production work. She can maintain regular attendance and be punctual within customary tolerances. She can perform activities within a schedule. She must avoid concentrated exposure to wetness, including wet, slippery, uneven surfaces. She must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation. She must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards, such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery.

(Tr. 22-23). Although still within the “light” exertional range, the RFC determined by ALJ Kramzyk in September 2015 was significantly more limited than the RFC previously determined by ALJ Lombardo in January 2013, when Plaintiff had limitations only to “low stress work” with “frequent fingering and handling.” (Tr. 112).

         Based upon her limitations and testimony from the vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff remained capable of performing a significant number of unskilled jobs that exist in the national economy, including the representative occupations of production assembler, small products assembler, and packaging line worker. (Tr. 31). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not under a disability. The Appeals Council denied review, leading Plaintiff to file this judicial appeal.

         In her Statement of Errors, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to consider evidence that Plaintiff would have an excessive level of absenteeism due to the number of her doctor's appointments; (2) improperly assessing Plaintiff's credibility; and (3) giving “little weight” to the opinions of Plaintiff's therapist. I find no reversible 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).

         In 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. Commissioner 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 she 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, she suffered an impairment, or combination of impairments, expected to last at least twelve months, that left him unable to perform any job. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         B. ...


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