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Johnston v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 25, 2018


          Algenon L. Marbley Judge



         Plaintiff, Holly M. Johnston (“Plaintiff”), brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for a period of disability, social security disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. This matter is before the undersigned for a Report and Recommendation on Plaintiff's Statement of Errors (ECF No. 10), the Commissioner's Response in Opposition (ECF No. 15), Plaintiff's Reply (ECF No. 16), and the administrative record (ECF No. 7). For the reasons that follow, the undersigned RECOMMENDEDS that the Court REVERSE the Commissioner of Social Security's non-disability finding and REMAND this case to the Commissioner and the ALJ under Sentence Four of § 405(g) for further consideration consistent with this Report and Recommendation.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff protectively filed her application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on July 30, 2013. In her application, Plaintiff alleged a disability onset of January 5, 2010. Plaintiff's application was denied initially on April 16, 2014, and upon reconsideration on September 16, 2014. Plaintiff sought a hearing before an administrative law judge. Administrative Law Judge Timothy Gates (“ALJ”) held a hearing on May 24, 2016, at which Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. Vocational expert Richard P. Oestreich, Ph.D. (the “VE”) also appeared and testified at the hearing. On July 12, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. On May 31, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review and adopted the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff then timely commenced the instant action.

         In her Statement of Errors (ECF No. 10), Plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's consideration and weighing of the opinion of her treating nurse practitioner, Alicja Matusiak, PMHNP-BC, who treated Plaintiff for her mental impairments. More specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to provide more than a “cursory and erroneous analysis” and that he cherry picked evidence necessary to discredit Nurse Practitioner Matusiak's opinion. (Pl.'s Statement of Errors 7, ECF No. 10.) Plaintiff next submits that the ALJ's mental RFC is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed, without sufficient explanation, to incorporate the limitations opined by the state agency physicians to whom he had assigned significant weight. Plaintiff also challenges the ALJ's evaluation of her fibromyalgia in assessing her physical RFC. Finally, Plaintiff maintains that the ALJ improperly evaluated her credibility under SSR 16-3p.


         On July 12, 2016, the ALJ issued his decision. (R. at 70-93.) The AJL first found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements through March 31, 2010. At step one of the sequential evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 5, 2010, the amended alleged onset date. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of an anxiety disorder, affective disorders, a schizoaffective type disorder, carpal tunnel syndrome, degenerative disc disease of the spine, obesity, and hypertension. He further found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments described in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. At step four of the sequential process, the ALJ set forth Plaintiff's RFC as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except the claimant could lift and/or carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally. The weight limitations on pushing and pulling are defined by the ability to lift and carry, except, the claimant could only occasionally push and pull with the upper and lower extremities. She could frequently handle and finger bilaterally. She could occasionally reach overhead bilaterally. The claimant could frequently climb ramps and stairs, but would be precluded from climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. She could frequently balance, but could only occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She should avoid exposure to unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts. The claimant could perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks. Further, she could have occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the general public.

(R. at 80.) In reaching this determination, the ALJ concluded that “while the claimant has medically determinable impairments that could reasonably cause some of the symptoms and limitations, . . . the claimant's testimony regarding the extent of such symptoms and limitations is not fully supported by the evidence of record.” (R. at 91.)

         Relying on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. at 91-92.)


         When reviewing a case under the Social Security Act, the Court “must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it ‘is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.'” Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”). Under this standard, “substantial evidence is defined as ‘more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241 (quoting Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994)).

         Although the substantial evidence standard is deferential, it is not trivial. The Court must “‘take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from [the] weight'” of the Commissioner's decision. TNS, Inc. v. NLRB, 296 F.3d 384, 395 (6th Cir. 2002) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 487 (1951)). Nevertheless, “if substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, this Court defers to that finding ‘even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite ...

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