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Strickland v. Saul

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

August 30, 2019




         Micaela Strickland (“Plaintiff”) requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration (“Defendant”) denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). ECF Dkt. #1. In her brief on the merits, Plaintiff asserts that the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) committed error that directly prejudiced Plaintiff because the ALJ failed to: (1) properly weigh the opinions of her treating case worker, which was co-signed by her treating physician, and the opinion of a psychiatrist; and (2) include additional limitations in his Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) determination. ECF Dkt. #15. For the following reasons, the Court AFFIRMS the decision of the ALJ and DISMISSES Plaintiff's case in its entirety WITH PREJUDICE.


         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on June 26, 2015, alleging disability beginning November 1, 2014 due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”), depression, anxiety, insomnia, migraines, and back injury. ECF Dkt. #10 (“Tr.”) at 67, 79, 93-94, 106- 07, 200.[2] The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her applications at the initial level and upon reconsideration. Id. at 77, 89, 104, 117, 136, 143. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and the ALJ held a hearing on October 13, 2017, where Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified. Id. at 29, 154, 155-59, 163. A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. Id. at 29-30.

         On January 31, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's applications for DIB and SSI. Tr. at 9-23. Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision, and the Appeals Council denied her request for review on June 7, 2018. Id. at 1-6, 194-95.

         On July 19, 2018, Plaintiff filed the instant suit seeking review of the ALJ's decision. ECF Dkt. #1. She filed a merits brief on January 16, 2019 and Defendant filed a merits brief on April 12, 2019. ECF Dkt. #15; ECF Dkt. #18. The parties consented to the authority of the Magistrate Judge. ECF Dkt. #12.


         On January 31, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. at 9-23. The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act (“Act”) through December 31, 2019. Id. at 14. He further found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 1, 2014, the alleged onset date. Id. Continuing, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, panic disorder, PTSD, and migraines. 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 15. After considering the record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following limitations: can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can never be exposed to unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, or operate a motor vehicle; limited to working in (up to and including) a loud noise environment; limited to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, but not at a production rate pace (i.e. assembly line work); limited to simple work-related decisions in using her judgment and dealing with changes in the work setting; capable of frequent interaction with supervisors and occasional interaction with coworkers and the public. Id. at 16.

         The ALJ then stated that Plaintiff had no past relevant work, was a younger individual on the alleged disability onset date, had at least a high school education, and could communicate in English. Tr. at 21. Next, the ALJ indicated that the transferability of jobs skill was not an issue because Plaintiff had no past relevant work. Id. Considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. Id. For these reasons, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from November 1, 2014 through the date of his decision. Id. at 22.


         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).


         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 (6th Cir. 2011) (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)) (internal citations omitted). Therefore, even if an ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, “a ...

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