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Chopka v. Saul

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

August 27, 2019

MELISSA CHOPKA, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL[1], COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GEORGE J. LIMBERT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Melissa Chopka (“Plaintiff”) requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). ECF Dkt. #1. In her merits brief, filed on August 27, 2018, Plaintiff asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) lacked substantial evidence to support his decision because (1) the evidence documents medical findings demonstrating that Plaintiff meets the requirements of Listing 1.04B at step three; and (2) he failed to fully and fairly evaluate Plaintiff's complaints of pain in his determination of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). ECF Dkt. #13. On October 25, 2018, Defendant filed a brief on the merits. ECF Dkt. #15.

         For the following reasons, the Court AFFIRMS the ALJ's decision and DISMISSES Plaintiff's complaint in its entirety with prejudice.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on March 2, 2015 alleging disability beginning November 4, 2002 due to anxiety, depression, sleep apnea, siatica, nerve damage, drop foot, spondiolosis, degenerative disc disease (“DDD”), chronic pain, neropathy, and numbness in legs and stabbing pain. ECF Dkt. #9[2] at 94, 106-07, 119, 201. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration. Id. at 94-119. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ which was held on July 26, 2017. Id. at 72, 125, 133, 173. At the hearing, Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified, and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified as well. Id. at 72.

         On August 25, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for DIB. Tr. at 9-24. Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision, and the Appeals Council denied her request for review on March 27, 2018. Id. at 1-6. On April 25, 2018, Plaintiff filed the instant suit seeking review of the ALJ's decision. ECF Dkt. #1. Plaintiff filed a merits brief on August 27, 2018, and Defendant subsequently filed a merits brief on October 25, 2018. ECF Dkt. #13; ECF Dkt. #15.

         II. RELEVANT PORTIONS OF THE ALJ'S DECISION

         On August 25, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act (“SSA”) on December 31, 2007. Tr. at 14. He found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 4, 2002, the alleged onset date. Id. He further found that through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the severe impairments of: DDD and obesity. Id. The ALJ determined that through the date last insured, 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. After considering the record, the ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work with the following limitations: can climb ramps and stairs occasionally but never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; could never balance, kneel or crawl but she can occasionally stoop and crouch; can never work at unprotected heights or near moving mechanical parts. Id.

         Through the date last insured and based upon Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. at 22-23. In conclusion, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the SSA, and she was not entitled to DIB from November 4, 2002 through December 31, 2007, the date that she was last insured. Id. at 24.

         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 (6thCir. 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, 661 F.3d at 937 (citing Blakely v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 407 (6th Cir.2009)) (citations omitted). Therefore, even if an ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, “a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the SSA fails to follow its own regulations and where that error prejudices a claimant on the merits or deprives the claimant of a substantial right.” Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007)).

         V. LAW AND ANALYSIS

         A. Step 3 ...


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