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Curry v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

August 23, 2019

ERICA KIMBERLY CURRY, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL[1], COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          GEORGE J. LIMBERT, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Erica Kimberly Curry (“Plaintiff”) requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration (“Defendant”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). ECF Dkt. #1. In her brief on the merits, Plaintiff asserts that the administrative law judge's (“ALJ”) residual functional capacity (“RFC”) for her is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to properly: (1) evaluate the opinions of her treating providers; and (2) consider her testimony and credibility. ECF Dkt. #13. For the following reasons, the Court AFFIRMS the decision of the ALJ and DISMISSES Plaintiff's case in its entirety WITH PREJUDICE.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on February 13, 2015 alleging disability beginning February 26, 2014 due to a lower lumbar injury, upper back injury, and nerve damage in both legs. ECF Dkt. #10 (“Tr.”) at 111, 203, 228.[2] The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her application. Id. at 111-123, 156-264. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and the ALJ held a hearing on February 13, 2017, where Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified. Id. at 39, 124-129. A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. Id. at 39.

         On April 3, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for DIB. Tr. at 12-25. Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision and the Appeals Council denied her request for review on March 7, 2018. Id. at 1-6, 308-310.

         On May 8, 2018, Plaintiff filed the instant suit seeking review of the ALJ's decision. ECF Dkt. #1. She filed a merits brief on September 19, 2018 and Defendant filed a merits brief on November 30, 2018. ECF Dkt. #s 13, 16. Plaintiff filed a reply brief on December 14, 2018. ECF Dkt. #17.

         II. RELEVANT PORTIONS OF ALJ'S DECISION

         On April 3, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding that while Plaintiff had worked after her alleged disability onset date, that work did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity, and therefore Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her onset date. Tr. at 14. The ALJ further found that since that date, Plaintiff had the severe impairments of lumbar spine degenerative disc disease (“LDDD”) with radiculopathy, thoracic spine DDD (“TDDD”), obesity, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). Id. He further found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 16-17. After considering the record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work with the following limitations: occasional balancing, crouching, crawling, stooping, bending, kneeling, and climbing stairs; never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no exposure to unprotected heights or moving machinery; the ability to change from sitting, walking, to standing at the workstation every 30 minutes, remaining at the changed position for 30 minutes before changing back to a previous position; and work in a low-stress job defined as occasional decision-making, occasional judgment required, and occasional changes in the work setting. Id. at 18.

         Based upon Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, the RFC, and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not return to her past relevant work as a bus driver or nurse assistant, but she could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, such as an office clerk, information clerk, or an accounting clerk. Tr. at 23-24. In conclusion, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, and she was not entitled to DIB from February 26, 2014 through the date of the decision. Id.

         III. STEPS TO EVALUATE ENTITLEMENT TO SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS

         An ALJ must proceed through the required sequential steps for evaluating entitlement to social security benefits. These steps are:

1. An individual who is working and engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found to be “disabled” regardless of medical findings (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b) and 416.920(b) (1992));
2. An individual who does not have a “severe impairment” will not be found to be “disabled” (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c) (1992));
3. If an individual is not working and is suffering from a severe impairment which meets the duration requirement, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509 and 416.909 (1992), and which meets or is equivalent to a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, a finding of disabled will be made without consideration of vocational factors (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d) and 416.920(d) (1992));
4. If an individual is capable of performing the kind of work he or she has done in the past, a finding of “not disabled” must be made (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) and 416.920(e) (1992));
5. If an individual's impairment is so severe as to preclude the performance of the kind of work he or she has done in the past, other factors including age, education, past work experience and residual functional capacity must be considered to determine if other work can be performed (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f) and 416.920(f) (1992)).

Hogg v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 328, 332 (6th Cir. 1992). The claimant has the burden to go forward with the evidence in the first four steps and the Commissioner has the burden in the fifth step. Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1181 (6th Cir. 1990).

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under the Social Security Act, the ALJ weighs the evidence, resolves any conflicts, and makes a determination of disability. This Court's review of such a determination is limited in scope by §205 of the Act, which states that the “findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. §405(g). Therefore, this Court's scope of review is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the findings of the Commissioner and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 922 (6th Cir. 1990).

         The substantial-evidence standard requires the Court to affirm the Commissioner's findings if they are supported by “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Cole v. Astrue, 661 F.3d 931, 937, citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal citation omitted). Substantial evidence is defined as “more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance.” Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234 (6th Cir. 2007). Accordingly, when substantial evidence supports the ALJ's denial of benefits, that finding must be affirmed, even if a preponderance of the evidence exists in the record upon which the ALJ could have found plaintiff disabled. The substantial evidence standard creates a “‘zone of choice' within which [an ALJ] can act without the fear of court interference.” Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 773 (6th Cir.2001). However, an ALJ's failure to follow agency rules and regulations “denotes a lack of substantial evidence, even where the conclusion of the ALJ may be justified based upon the record.” Cole, supra, citing Blakely v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 407 (6th Cir.2009) (internal citations omitted).

         V. LAW AND ANALYSIS

         A. TREATING ...


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