United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
J. LIMBERT, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Erica Kimberly Curry (âPlaintiffâ) requests judicial review
of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
Administration (âDefendantâ) denying her application for
Disability Insurance Benefits (âDIBâ). ECF Dkt. #1. In her
brief on the merits, Plaintiff asserts that the
administrative law judge's (âALJâ) residual functional
capacity (âRFCâ) 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
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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. 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.
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.
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.
RELEVANT PORTIONS OF ALJ'S DECISION
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.
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.
STEPS TO EVALUATE ENTITLEMENT TO SOCIAL SECURITY
must proceed through the required sequential steps for
evaluating entitlement to social security benefits. These
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).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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).
LAW AND ANALYSIS