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Hoff v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 20, 2018


          Black, J.


          Stephanie K. Bowman United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Michelle Lee Hoff 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 four 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

         In April 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), alleging disability beginning on February 21, 2008, based upon a combination of multiple physical impairments that arose following a work-related injury, and mental impairments including depression. After her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing before an ALJ.

         On April 27, 2016, Plaintiff appeared with counsel and gave testimony before ALJ Catherine Ma; her husband and a vocational expert also testified. (Tr. 33-79). At 35, Plaintiff was considered a younger individual on the date of her alleged disability, and at 41, remained in that age category on June 30, 2014, her date last insured for purposes of DIB.[1] She completed high school and vocational training in early childhood education, with most of her past relevant work in the childcare industry. She lives with her husband, her teenage son, and a college-age daughter. Plaintiff testified that most of her problems began when she slipped and fell on a patch of black ice in February 2008, while working as an early childhood education teacher at the Goddard School.

         On May 26, 2016, the ALJ issued an adverse written decision, concluding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Tr. 11-27). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has severe impairments of spine disorder, degenerative disc disease, obesity, attention deficit disorder, and affective disorders. (Tr. 13). The ALJ found that other alleged impairments, including pain in her shoulder and knee, gastroesophageal reflux disease, diabetes, asthma and hypertension, were all either well-controlled conditions or were otherwise non-severe because they did not cause more than a minimal effect in her ability to perform work activities. (Tr. 14). Plaintiff does not dispute the ALJ's determination that none of her impairments, either alone or in combination, met or medically equaled 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. 14).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a restricted range of light work, subject to the following limitations:

[S]he could frequently climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She could occasionally stoop. She was limited to performing simple, routine tasks but not at a production rate pace. She could tolerate occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers and the public. She was limited to occasional routine work changes.

(Tr. 15). Considering Plaintiff's age, education, and RFC, and based on testimony from the vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could still perform a “significant number” (totaling nearly five million) jobs in the national economy, including the representative jobs of order caller, price marker, and house sitter. (Tr. 26). 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 argues that the ALJ erred: (1) by failing to provide “good reasons” for rejecting the opinions of three treating physicians; (2) by giving the greatest weight to two non-examining medical consultants; (3) by giving little weight to the opinions of two physicians who evaluated Plaintiff on behalf of the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation; and (4) by finding Plaintiff to be less than completely credible. All four of Plaintiff's claims pertain to her alleged physical limitations and pain level; she does not challenge the ALJ's assessment of her mental limitations.

         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. Plaintiff's Claims

         1. Evaluation of Treating Physician Opinions

         Plaintiff first criticizes the ALJ's failure to adopt the opinions of three treating physicians or to give “good reasons” for the weight given to them. Two of those physicians concluded, at times, that she was capable of sedentary work. Other physicians offered both similar and contradictory opinions; it was the ALJ's duty to resolve the conflicts between the divergent opinions.[2] Here, I find no reversible error in the ALJ's analysis of the three referenced opinions, because the ALJ appropriately explained why their opinions were not entitled to controlling weight.

         The relevant regulation regarding treating physicians provides: “If we find that a treating source's opinion on the issue(s) of the nature and severity of your impairment(s) is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in your case record, we will give it controlling weight.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.927(c)(2); see alsoWarner v. Com'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004); SSR 96-2p. Based upon the express language of the regulation, an ALJ is not required to give ...

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