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Lang v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 2, 2018

VICTORIA L. LANG, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          Barrett, J.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Stephanie K. Bowman United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Victoria Lang 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 two 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 previously filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) in April 2010, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2009 based upon carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, a knee impairment, and a combination of mental impairments. After her 2010 applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). In June 2012, ALJ Curt Marceille conducted a hearing by videoconference. On August 7, 2012, ALJ Marceille issued an adverse written decision, determining that Plaintiff could continue to perform a substantial number of jobs in the national economy, and therefore was not disabled. (Tr. 74-92). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of that decision, and she did not further appeal.

         Instead, in December 2013, Plaintiff filed new applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), alleging disability beginning on the day after ALJ Marceille's decision, based upon the same combination of impairments. After her claims were again denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a new evidentiary hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. On March 22, 2016, Plaintiff appeared with a non-attorney representative and gave testimony before ALJ Paul Jones; a vocational expert also testified. On May 2, 2016, ALJ Jones issued a second adverse written decision, again concluding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Tr. 12-29).

         ALJ Jones determined that Plaintiff has severe impairments of osteoarthritis of the knees; carpal tunnel syndrome of the dominant right hand, obesity, depressive disorder/bipolar disorder/mood disorder with features of post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia spectrum/psychotic disorder, and intermittent explosive disorder/personality disorder with antisocial and paranoid features. (Tr. 18). The ALJ additionally found that a host of additional physical impairments that Plaintiff alleged were disabling, including asthma, hypertension, cardiovascular complaints, sickle cell trait, various skin irritations, and inflammatory arthritis were all “not severe.” (Tr. 18-20). The ALJ also found no intellectual disability had been established, notwithstanding Plaintiff's report of special education services when she was in grade school. (Tr. 19). The ALJ also determined that substance use disorder had not been established despite some evidence of possible dependence upon pain medication. (Tr. 19-20). Considering both severe and non-severe impairments that had been medically established, the ALJ found that none of those 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. 20). Instead, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a restricted range of sedentary work, subject to the following limitations:

[T]here can be no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no kneeling, crouching, or crawling; occasional stooping; frequent handling with the dominant right hand; simple, routine, repetitive tasks; no production quota work; occasional changes in the work setting; and occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors.

(Tr. 23).

         In determining Plaintiff's RFC, ALJ Jones indicated that he was “partially adopt[ing]” ALJ Marceille's earlier RFC findings under Drummond v. Com'r of Soc. Sec., 126 F.3d 837 (6th Cir. 1997). (Tr. 15, 23). Although he found no new or material evidence relating back to the prior adjudicated timeframe to justify disturbing the August 2012 decision, he considered new evidence that arose after that date, which was pertinent to the post-August 2012 disability period. (Id.) Nevertheless, 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 of jobs in the national economy, including the representative jobs of inspector, sorter, assembler, and folder. (Tr. 29). The Appeals Council denied further review, leaving ALJ Jones's non-disability determination as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         In her appeal to this Court, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred: (1) by finding that she could perform “frequent” handling with her right hand instead of limiting her to occasional use of her right hand; and (2) by finding only moderate mental limitations and declining to impose more severe mental limitations in assessing Plaintiff's mental RFC.

         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 her unable to perform any job. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         B. ...


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