United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
Stephanie K. Bowman United States Magistrate Judge.
Tiffany N. Buchanan 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 asserts two claims of error. As
explained below, I conclude that the ALJ's decision
should be AFFIRMED, because it is supported by substantial
evidence in the record as a whole.
Summary of Administrative Record
decision from which Plaintiff appeals to this Court is the
second adverse disability decision against Plaintiff.
Plaintiff first sought disability insurance benefits
(“DIB”) on November 1, 2011, but that application
was denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which
she sought an evidentiary hearing before an administrative
law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 149). On March 12, 2013,
ALJ Scott Canfield issued a written adverse decision,
concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 122-138).
The Appeals Council denied review, leaving the March 2013
decision as final for purposes of administrative res
filed a new application for benefits on February 6, 2015,
alleging the onset of disability beginning March 13, 2013.
That DIB application also was denied initially and upon
reconsideration, after which Plaintiff requested a new
evidentiary hearing. On March 24, 2017, Plaintiff appeared
with counsel and gave testimony before ALJ Elizabeth Motta; a
vocational expert also testified. (Tr. 83-118). On September
26, 2017, ALJ Motta issued a second unfavorable written
decision. (Tr. 61-74). The Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request for further review, leaving the
ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner.
upon Plaintiff's earnings record, she was insured for
purposes of DIB only through March 31, 2016. Therefore, she
must establish that she became disabled prior to that date.
Plaintiff was 28 years old on her date last insured
(“DLI”), an age that is considered to be a
“younger individual.” She has a high school
education, and past relevant work as an assistant manager, a
skilled job that she performed at the light exertional level.
(Tr. 72). She lives in a house with her husband of eight
years; they have no children. (Tr. 87-88).
determined that Plaintiff has severe impairments of:
“undifferentiated connective tissue disease;
fibromyalgia; lumbar degenerative changes; obesity;
headaches; bipolar disorder; and anxiety disorder.”
(Tr. 63). The ALJ found additional “non-severe”
impairments of: “(1) gastro-esophageal reflux disease
(“GERD”); (2) heart palpitations, (3) marijuana
abuse, (4) nausea-alone, (5) irritable bowel syndrome
(“IBS”), and (6) hypothyroidism.” (Tr. 64).
The ALJ further found “non-medically determinable
impairments of ‘possible' postural orthostatic
tachycardia syndrome (‘POTS'), alleged
Addison's disease, alleged adrenal insufficiency, alleged
Lupus, and alleged colitis.” (Tr. 65). In this appeal,
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 throughout the relevant
period. (Tr. 66).
Motta agreed that Plaintiff cannot perform her past work.
Consistent with the 2013 decision, ALJ Motta determined that
Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform only a limited range of light
work, with minor changes in her 2013 restrictions based upon
additional evidence. Thus, the ALJ found that Plaintiff
Lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pound
frequently; sit, stand, and walk each six hours in an
eight-hour workday; only occasional postural activities, such
as climbing stairs and ramps, balancing, stooping, kneeling,
crouching, or crawling; no climbing ropes, ladders, or
scaffolds; no exposure to hazards, such as dangerous
machinery, at unprotected heights, or driving as part of job
duties; no concentrated exposure to vibration; no
concentrated exposure to extremes of heat, cold, wetness, or
humidity; no concentrated exposure to dusts, fumes, odors,
gases, or poorly ventilated areas; limited to simple,
repetitive tasks; limited to low stress work with no strict
production quotas or fast pace and only routine work with few
changes in the work setting and limited to occasional contact
with the public, coworkers, and supervisors.
(Tr. 68-69; compare with Tr. 132 (2013 RFC
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 through her
DLI, including the representative jobs of office helper, mail
clerk, and photocopy machine operator. (Tr. 73). Therefore,
the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability.
judicial appeal, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred: (1) by
failing to identify additional “severe”
impairments and/or by considering her combination of severe
and non-severe impairments in determining her RFC; and (2) by
improperly assessing her subjective complaints. The
undersigned finds no reversible error.
Judicial Standard of Review
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).
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
Id. (citations omitted).
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.
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. §
Alleged Error at Step 2: Determination of Severe
first claim, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred at Step 2 of
the sequential analysis, by failing to find her heart
palpitations, IBS, GERD, Lupus, Addison's disease/adrenal
insufficiency, and POTS to be additional “severe”
impairments. Instead, the ALJ found her heart palpitations,
IBS, and GERD to be “non-severe, ” and found
Lupus, Addison's disease/adrenal insufficiency and POTS
to be “non-medically determinable impairments.”
well established that the mere existence of an impairment
does not establish that Plaintiff was significantly limited
from performing basic work activities for a continuous period
of time. Despins v. Com'r of Soc. Sec., 257
Fed.Appx. 923, 930 (6th Cir. 2007) (internal citation
omitted). That is because a “mere diagnosis…says
nothing about the severity of a condition.” Higgs
v. Bowen,880 F.2d 860, 863 (6th Cir. 1988)). In
addition, “[t]he ALJ need not find credible a
claimant's subjective complaints or medical assessments
not supported by the medical evidence or the record as a
whole.” Long v. Apfel, 1 Fed.Appx. 326, 331
(6th Cir. 2001). “When doctors' reports contain no
information regarding physical limitations or the intensity,