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Shaffer v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 15, 2019


          Black, J.



         Plaintiff Gregory C. Shaffer filed this Social Security appeal in order to challenge the Defendant's denial of his disability claim. See 42 U.S.C. §405(g). Proceeding through counsel, Plaintiff presents five claims of error. For the reasons explained below, I conclude that the ALJ's finding of non-disability should be REVERSED AND REMANDED for further development of the record.

         I. Summary of Administrative Record

          On March 27, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), alleging a disability onset date in March 2014.[1] Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, following which Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). On October 24, 2017, through counsel, Plaintiff appeared by videoconference and gave testimony before ALJ Peter Jamison; a vocational expert also testified. (Tr. 31-68). On February 1, 2018, the ALJ issued an adverse written decision.[2] (Tr. 10-19). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, leaving the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final determination. Plaintiff filed this appeal to obtain additional judicial review.

         Plaintiff testified that he can no longer work due to a back impairment, knee pain, pain in his right arm, breathing issues, and depression and anxiety. (Tr. 41). Plaintiff was 51 years old at the time of his alleged disability onset, and was 54 years old as of the date he was last insured for purposes of DIB.[3] He lives in a home with his wife and stepdaughter. He has a high school education and was last employed in 2010, with past relevant work as a housekeeping cleaner, a housekeeper, an industrial commercial groundkeeper, and a church janitor. (Tr. 41; Tr. 17).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe physical impairments: “cervical spine disorder, knee impairment (osteoarthritis), lumbar spine disorder and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).” (Tr. 12). Contrary to Plaintiff's testimony and the opinions of his treating physician, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's depression and anxiety are “non-severe” because they cause no more than “mild” imitation in any functional area. (Tr. 13).

         Although Plaintiff's counsel argued at the hearing that Plaintiff would meet or equal a Listing, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that would meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appx. 1. (Tr. 13). Plaintiff does not challenge that determination in this Court. Instead, Plaintiff primarily argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) at the light exertional level, rather than at the sedentary level.

         Although the ALJ found Plaintiff to be capable of light work, he did add non-exertional restrictions that further reduced that range of work:

[He can] push and/or pull foot controls with the left and right foot occasionally; climb ramps and stairs occasionally; never climb ladders and scaffolds; occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; never be exposed to unprotected heights, hazardous moving mechanical parts, humid/wet working conditions, extreme cold and heat and vibration; avoid concentrated exposure to dust, fumes, odors and pulmonary irritants and able to operate a motor vehicle occasionally.

(Tr. 14). Based on the RFC as determined, the ALJ found that Plaintiff would be able to perform all of his past relevant work. However, in the alternative, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform other jobs in the national economy, including the representative jobs of merchandise marker, router, and power screwdriver operator. (Tr. 18). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability. (Id.)

         Notably, if the ALJ had restricted Plaintiff to the sedentary level, Plaintiff's age would have entitled him to an automatic finding of disability under Medical Vocational Grid Rules. See 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, App. 2, Rule 201.14. In this appeal, Plaintiff generally advocates in favor of the application of Grid Rule 201.14 based upon a sedentary exertional level. More specifically, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred by: (1) by giving an equal amount of weight to all medical opinions of record; (2) by failing to account for Plaintiff's need for a cane; (3) by failing to classify Plaintiff's mental impairments as “severe”; (4) by inadequately explaining his adverse credibility determination; and (5) by failing to include additional mental and/or physical limitations in the hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert.

         I discuss each of the alleged errors below, albeit in a slightly different order.[4]Based upon the failure of the ALJ to provide adequate analysis for this Court's review, I conclude that remand for further development of the record is required.

         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 ...

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