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King v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 13, 2018

CARLI D. KING, Plaintiff,

          Barrett, J.


          Stephanie K. Bowman United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Carli King 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 argues that the ALJ erred both by improperly evaluating the medical opinion evidence, and by finding her to be not fully credible. As explained below, I conclude that the ALJ's finding of non-disability should be REVERSED, because the finding reflects legal error and is not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.

         I. Summary of Administrative Record

         On September 17, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), alleging disability beginning on January 31, 2010, based upon several severe mental health impairments.[1] After her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing before an ALJ. On November 18, 2015, she appeared with counsel and gave testimony before ALJ Mark Hockensmith; a vocational expert also testified. (Tr. 36-70). On December 9, 2015, the ALJ issued an adverse written decision, concluding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Tr. 20-29).

         Plaintiff was 32 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision, an age that is considered to be a younger individual under social security regulations. She has a limited ninth grade education. She has four children, none of whom live with her, apparently because of her mental impairments. She lives in a home with her sister, her brother-in-law, and their three children. She has a limited work history, with no past relevant work.

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has severe impairments of bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and a panic disorder. (Tr. 22). In addition, the ALJ noted non-severe impairments of chronic joint pain and gastro esophageal reflux disease. (Tr. 22). However, 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. 23).

         Instead, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity “RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, subject to the following non-exertional limitations relating to her mental impairments:

(1) work should consist of simple, routine tasks; (2) in a static work environment with few changes in routine; (3) no fast paced work or strict production quotas; (4) no contact with the public; (5) occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors; and (6) no tandem or collaborative work.

(Tr. 24). Considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, and based on testimony from the vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could still perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy, including the representative jobs of laundry worker, inspector/Hand Packager, and Injection Molding Machine Tender. (Tr. 28). Therefore, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability. The Appeals Council denied further review, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         In her appeal to this Court, Plaintiff primarily argues that the ALJ erred in weighing the medical opinion evidence, and in improperly assessing her credibility. Although I find no reversible error in the ALJ's rejection of the opinions rendered by Plaintiff's treating physician or assessment of Plaintiff's credibility, I nevertheless recommend reversal based upon a separate legal error evident in the ALJ's failure to adequately discuss evidence of Plaintiff's level of impairment in her more recent records, and in the ALJ's failure to discuss the consulting physicians' lack of access to those records.

         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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