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Comer v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 3, 2019

JOHN J. COMER, Plaintiff,

          Vascura Magistrate Judge



         This matter comes before the Court on the Magistrate Judge's December 14, 2018, Report and Recommendation (ECF No. 20), which recommended that Plaintiff's Statement of Errors (ECF No. 14) be OVERRULED and that the Commissioner's decision be AFFIRMED. This Court hereby ADOPTS the Report and Recommendation in its entirety based on an independent consideration of the analysis therein.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, John J. Comer, filed applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) on October 15, 2014, alleging an onset date of his disability as July 18, 2013. (R. at 66). Plaintiff's claims were denied on March 15, 2015, and subsequently denied upon reconsideration on May 22, 2015. (R. at 66). On June 15, 2015, Plaintiff submitted a request for a hearing. (R. at 66). Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified before an administrative law judge (“ALJ)” at his hearing on February 22, 2017. (R. at 66). Additionally, a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared and testified at the hearing. (R. at 66).

         The ALJ found that, from the date of July 18, 2013 to the date of the ALJ's decision issued on May 17, 2017, Plaintiff was not “disabled” under the term's meaning in the Social Security Act. (R. at 67). In his decision denying Plaintiff benefits, the ALJ followed the required five-step sequential analysis for disability-benefits claims. (R. at 67-69). See C.F.R. § 416.920(a).[1] At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 18, 2013. (R. at 70). The ALJ noted that Plaintiff worked for brief periods of time, but was either terminated or quit. (R. at 70). At the second step, the ALJ found, as had a prior ALJ, that Plaintiff was severely impaired by lumbar and cervical disc disease and obesity. (R. at 70). The ALJ also found that Plaintiff was no longer severely impaired by carpal tunnel syndrome based on new and material evidence. (R. at 70). Finally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had additional severe impairments including “bilateral lateral epicondylitis, degenerative disc disease of the thoracic spine, and sacroiliitis.” (R. at 70). At the third step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or exceeded a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 73). At the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform certain sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a). (R. at 74-79). At the fifth and final step, the ALJ found that there was “other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy” that Plaintiff was capable of performing with “successful adjustment.” (R. at 79-80). As such, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not “disabled” under the term's meaning in the Social Security Act. (R. at 79).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision on December 29, 2017, thus holding the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final agency action. (R. at 1). Plaintiff then timely filed suit in federal court, alleging in his Statement of Errors that the ALJ erred in his step-three analysis, that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate Plaintiff's assertions regarding his back pain, and that the Appeals Council erred in denying his request for review. (ECF No. 14).

         On December 14, 2018, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation recommending that this Court overrule Plaintiff's Statement of Errors and affirm the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (ECF No. 20). Plaintiff subsequently objected to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation with regard to the Magistrate Judge's finding that the ALJ did not err in his step-two analysis or his credibility determination. (ECF No. 21).


         Upon objection to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, this Court must “make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). This de novo review, in turn, requires the Court to “determine whether the record as a whole contains substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision” and to “determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal criteria.” Inman v. Astrue, 920 F.Supp.2d 861, 863 (S.D. Ohio 2013). Substantial evidence means relevant evidence that “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Ealy v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 594 F.3d 504, 512 (6th Cir. 2010) (quotation omitted). Substantial evidence constitutes “more than a mere scintilla, but only so much as would be required to prevent judgment as a matter of law against the Commissioner if this case were being tried to a jury.” Inman, 920 F.Supp.2d at 863 (citing Foster v. Bowen, 853 F.2d 483, 486 (6th Cir. 1988)).


         A. Step-Two Determination

         Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge's finding that the ALJ sufficiently articulated his reasons for determining that Plaintiff's depression and anxiety did not constitute severe impairments under step two. (ECF No. 21). Step two of the five-step sequential evaluation of evidence for disability claims requires an ALJ to determine whether the claimant suffers from one or more severe impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). A severe impairment is defined as “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities” and “which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A claimant can establish a severe mental impairment through “medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by [a claimant's] statement of symptoms.” Griffith v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 Fed. App'x 555, 559 (6th Cir. 2014). Moreover, a claimant bears the burden of establishing a severe impairment by medical evidence. Id.

         After determining whether a claimant has shown a severe impairment, “an ALJ must include a discussion of ‘findings and conclusions, and the reasons or basis therefor, on all the material issues of fact, law, or discretion presented on the record.'” Reynolds v. Comm'r Soc. Sec., No. 09-2060, 2011 WL 1228165, at *2 (6th Cir. Apr. 1, 2011) (quoting 5 U.S.C. ยง 557(c)(3)(A)). ...

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