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Duncan v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 14, 2018

AMY DUNCAN, Plaintiff,

          Barrett, J.


          Stephanie K. Bowman United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Amy Duncan filed this Social Security appeal in order to challenge the Defendant's findings that she is not disabled. See 42 U.S.C. §405(g). Proceeding through counsel, Plaintiff presents four claims of error, all of which the Defendant disputes. For the reasons explained below, I conclude that the ALJ's finding of non-disability should be AFFIRMED, because it is supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record.

         I. Summary of Administrative Record

         In May 15, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income alleging a disability onset date of March 20, 2013, due to mental and physical impairments. (Tr. 156, 238). After Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, she requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge. (“ALJ”). On July 23, 2015, ALJ Kevin Deatherage held an evidentiary hearing at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert. On November 3, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application in a written decision. (Tr. 32-41). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the denial of her application for benefits.

         Plaintiff was born March 28, 1973 and was 40 years old at the time of her application. (Tr. 41) She completed high school and was enrolled in special education classes beginning in second grade. She has no past relevant work. She alleges disability due to her mental impairments; namely, bipolar disorder, depression, affective disorder and borderline intellectual functioning.

         Based upon the record and testimony presented at the hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, diabetes, obesity, depression, and affective disorder.” (Tr. 34). The ALJ concluded that none of Plaintiff's impairments alone or in combination met or medically equaled a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subp. P, Appendix 1. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff retains the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with the following limitations:

She can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and can only occasionally climb ramps or stairs. She should avoid exposure to hazards such as heights or machinery with moving parts, and she should avoid concentrated exposure to dusts, fumes, gases, odors, extreme cold or heat, poorly ventilated areas, or humidity. She cannot do production rate pace work. She can tolerate only occasional changes in a routine workplace setting and only occasional contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public. She is likely to be absent from work one day per month and to be off task 10% of the work period.

(Tr. 37-38). Based upon the record as a whole including testimony from the vocational expert, and given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform work in the national economy including such jobs as packager, folder, and inspector. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not under disability, as defined in the Social Security Regulations, and is not entitled SSI. Id.

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Therefore, the ALJ's decision stands as the Defendant's final determination. On appeal to this Court, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to find that Plaintiff's impairments meet or equal Listing 12.05(c); (2) assigning little weight to the findings of Plaintiff's treating clinical nurse; 3) improperly evaluating Dr. Groneck's findings; 4) failing to find that Plaintiff's migraines were a severe impairment. Upon close analysis, I conclude that the ALJ's decision should be affirmed.

         II. Analysis

         A. Judicial Standard of Review

         To be eligible for SSI or DIB a claimant must be under a “disability” within the definition of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a), (d), 1382c(a). The definition of the term “disability” is essentially the same for both DIB and SSI. See Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 469-70 (1986). 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, 476 U.S. at 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 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 he or she is entitled to disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a). Thus, a plaintiff seeking benefits must present sufficient evidence to show that, during the relevant time period, he or she suffered an impairment, or combination of impairments, expected to last at least twelve months, that left him or her unable to perform any job in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         B. The ALJ's decision is supported by Substantial Evidence

         1. Listing 12.05 (C)

         Plaintiff's first assignment of error contends that the ALJ erred in finding that her impairments do not meet or equal the requirements for Listing 12.05(C). Upon careful review and for the reasons that follow, the undersigned finds that the ALJ's decision is substantially supported.

         Listing 12.05 provides as follows:

12.05 Mental Retardation: mental retardation refers to significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning with adaptive functioning initially manifested during the developmental period; i.e., the evidence demonstrates or supports onset of the impairment before age 22.
The required level of severity for this disorder is met when the requirements in A, B, C, or D are satisfied.
A. Mental incapacity evidenced by dependence upon others for personal needs (e.g., toileting, eating, dressing, or bathing) and inability to follow directions, such that the use of standardized ...

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