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Nolte v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 26, 2019

MICHAEL A. NOLTE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ENTRY: (1) REVERSING THE ALJ'S NON-DISABILITY FINDING AS UNSUPPORTED BY SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE; (2) REMANDING THIS CASE UNDER THE FOURTH SENTENCE OF 42 U.S.C. § 405(G) FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS; AND (3) TERMINATING THIS CASE ON THE COURT'S DOCKET

          Michael J. Newman Magistrate Judge

         This is a Social Security disability benefits appeal for which the parties have consented to entry of final judgment. At issue is whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in finding Plaintiff not “disabled” and therefore unentitled to Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and/or Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).[1] This case is before the Court on Plaintiff's Statement of Errors (doc. 14), the Commissioner's memorandum in opposition (doc. 16), Plaintiff's reply (doc. 17), the administrative record (doc. 7), [2] and the record as a whole.

         I.

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff originally filed for DIB and SSI alleging a disability onset date of December 31, 2009. PageID 1234. Plaintiff claims disability as a result of a number of alleged impairments including, inter alia, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, kidney disease, and a gastrointestinal disorder. PageID 1239.

         After an initial denial of his application, Plaintiff received a hearing before ALJ Amelia G. Lombardo on December 3, 2013. PageID 82-109. ALJ Lombardo issued a written decision on January 10, 2014 finding Plaintiff not disabled. PageID 52-73. Plaintiff appealed, and this Court vacated the non-disability finding on August 16, 2016. PageID 1320-22. While Plaintiff's appeal was pending, he filed a new claim for SSI. PageID 1235. The Appeals Council ordered the ALJ to consider this new application on remand as well. Id.

         Plaintiff received a second hearing, before ALJ Deborah F. Sanders, on June 27, 2017. PageID 1652-83. ALJ Sanders issued a written opinion on September 6, 2017, finding Plaintiff not disabled under his original or more recent claim for benefits. PageID 1234-61. Specifically, ALJ Sanders found at Step Five that, from December 31, 2009 through March 31, 2012 (Plaintiff's last insured date), Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of light work.[3]PageID1242. From April 1, 2012 through September 6, 2017, the ALJ determined that, due to a change in his medical conditions, Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a more restricted, but unspecified category of work that fell between light and sedentary.[4] PageID 1250. Based upon both of Plaintiff's RFCs, the ALJ concluded that “there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] could have performed[.]” PageID 64-70.

         Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making ALJ Sanders' non-disability finding the final administrative decision of the Commissioner. PageID 1226-29. See Casey v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 987 F.2d 1230, 1233 (6th Cir. 1993). Plaintiff then filed this timely appeal. Cook v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 480 F.3d 432, 435 (6th Cir. 2007). This September 6, 2017 non-disability finding by ALJ Sanders (hereinafter “ALJ”) is now before the Court for review.

         B. Evidence of Record

         The evidence of record is adequately summarized in the ALJ's decision (PageID 1234-61), Plaintiff's Statement of Errors (doc. 14), the Commissioner's memorandum in opposition (doc. 16), and Plaintiff's reply (doc. 17). The undersigned incorporates all of the foregoing and sets forth the facts relevant to this appeal herein.

         II.

         A. Standard of Review

          The Court's inquiry on a Social Security appeal is to determine (1) whether the ALJ's non-disability finding is supported by substantial evidence, and (2) whether the ALJ employed the correct legal criteria. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 745-46 (6th Cir. 2007). In performing this review, the Court must consider the record as a whole. Hephner v. Mathews, 574 F.2d 359, 362 (6th Cir. 1978).

         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). When substantial evidence supports the ALJ's denial of benefits, that finding must be affirmed, even if substantial evidence also exists in the record upon which the ALJ could have found Plaintiff disabled. Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 772 (6th Cir. 2001). Thus, the ALJ has a “‘zone of choice' within which he [or she] can act without the fear of court interference.” Id. at 773.

         The second judicial inquiry -- reviewing the correctness of the ALJ's legal analysis -- may result in reversal even if the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Rabbersv. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009). “[A] decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the [Social Security Administration] fails to follow its own regulations and where that error ...


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