United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
J. LIMBERT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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,
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.
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,
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.
RELEVANT PORTIONS OF ALJ'S DECISION
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.
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.
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 (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 ...