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Buchanan v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 28, 2019


          DLOTT, J.


          Stephanie K. Bowman United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff 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.

         I. Summary of Administrative Record

          The 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 judicata.

         Plaintiff 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.

         Based 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).

         The ALJ 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).

         ALJ 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 could:

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 determination)).

         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 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.

         In her 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.

         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. Plaintiff's Claims

         1. Alleged Error at Step 2: Determination of Severe Impairments

         In her 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.” (Tr. 64-65).

         It is 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, ...

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