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Deffinger v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 16, 2019

KELLY L. DEFFINGER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          Barrett, J.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          KAREN L. LITKOVITZ UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Kelly L. Deffinger brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI"). This matter is before the Court on plaintiffs statement of errors (Doc. 6), the Commissioner's response in opposition (Doc. 12), and plaintiffs reply memorandum (Doc. 13).

         I. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff protectively filed her applications for DIB and SSI in October 2014, alleging disability since June 22, 2013[1]due to an injury causing herniated discs in the neck and lower back, bulging discs in the middle of her spine, depression, and anxiety. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff, through counsel, requested and was granted a de novo hearing before administrative law judge ("ALJ") Peter J. Boylan. Plaintiff and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified at the ALJ hearing on February 24, 2017. On April 12, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiffs DIB and SSI applications. Plaintiffs request for review by the Appeals Council was denied, making the decision of ALJ Boylan the final administrative decision of the Commissioner.

         II. Analysis

         A. Legal Framework for Disability Determinations

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must suffer from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) (DIB), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (SSI). The impairment must render the claimant unable to engage in the work previously performed or in any other substantial gainful employment that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         Regulations promulgated by the Commissioner establish a five-step sequential evaluation process for disability determinations:

1) If the claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, the claimant is not disabled.
2) If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment - i.e., an impairment that significantly limits his or her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities - the claimant is not disabled.
3) If the claimant has a severe impairment(s) that meets or equals one of the listings in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the regulations and meets the duration requirement, the claimant is disabled.
4) If the claimant's impairment does not prevent him or her from doing his or her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled.
5) If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the claimant is disabled.

Robbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 582 F.3d 647, 652 (6th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 404.1520(b)-(g)). The claimant has the burden of proof at the first four steps of the sequential evaluation process. Id.; Wilson v. Comm'r of Sac. Sec, 378 F.3d 541, 548 (6th Cir. 2004). Once the claimant establishes a prima facie case by showing an inability to perform the relevant previous employment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful employment and that such employment exists in the national economy. Rubbers, 582 F.3d at 652; Harmon v. Apfel, 168 F.3d 289, 291 (6th Cir. 1999).

         B. The Administrative Law Judge's Findings

         Plaintiff previously filed applications for DIB and SSI in April 2011, alleging disability since March 7, 2011. These applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. After a hearing, ALJ Curt Marceille issued a decision on June 21, 2013 denying plaintiffs DIB and SSI applications. (Tr. 71-89). In rendering his decision on plaintiffs subsequent DIB and SSI applications, ALJ Boylan recognized that he was bound under principles of administrative res judicata by ALJ Marceille's prior findings as to plaintiffs residual functional capacity ("RFC") "unless there is new and material evidence or a showing of 'changed circumstances.'" (Tr. 10) (citing Acquiescence Ruling (AR) 98-4(6); Drummond v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 126 F.3d 837 (6th Cir. 1997), Dennard v. Sec'y of H.H.S., 907 F.2d 598 (6th Cir. 1990), AR 98-3(6)). ALJ Boylan determined that "the updated medical evidence demonstrates material changes that merit slight changes to the findings of fact identified in the prior decision." (Id.).

         ALJ Boylan applied the sequential evaluation process and made the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:

1. The [plaintiff] meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2016.
2. The [plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 22, 2013, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
3. The [plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the spine status post two cervical discectomies and one lumbar laminectomy; depression; and borderline intellectual functioning (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The [plaintiff] does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), ...

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