Stamper v. SSA
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER: 1) Plaintiff's Motion 9 for Summary Judgment is DENIED; and 2) Defendant's Motion 10 for Summary Judgment is GRANTED. Signed by Judge Joseph M. Hood on 10/6/2017.(CBD)cc: COR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
CENTRAL DIVISION AT LEXINGTON
ANITA LYNN STAMPER,
executor of the estate
of Michael Lane Hatton,
) Action No. 5:16-CV-00103-JMH
) MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner of
This matter is before the Court on the parties’ cross-Motions
for Summary Judgment (DE 9, 10) on Plaintiff’s appeal of the
Commissioner’s denial of an application for disability insurance
The matter having been fully briefed by the parties is
now ripe for this Court’s review.
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) uses a five step analysis:
1. An individual who is working and engaging
in substantial gainful activity is not
disabled, regardless of the claimant’s
2. An individual who is working but does not
significantly limits his physical or mental
These are not traditional Rule 56 motions for summary judgment. Rather,
it is a procedural device by which the parties bring the administrative record
before the Court.
ability to do basic work activities is not
3. If an individual is not working and has a
severe impairment which “meets the duration
requirement and is listed in appendix 1 or
equal to a listed impairment(s)”, then he
is disabled regardless of other factors.
4. If a decision cannot be reached based on
current work activity and medical facts
alone, and the claimant has a severe
impairment, then the Secretary reviews the
claimant’s residual functional capacity and
the physical and mental demands of the
claimant’s previous work. If the claimant
is able to continue to do this previous
work, then he is not disabled.
5. If the claimant cannot do any work he did
in the past because of a severe impairment,
then the Secretary considers his residual
functional capacity, age, education, and
past work experience to see if he can do
other work. If he cannot, the claimant is
Preslar v. Sec’y of Health & Hum. Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th
Cir. 1994) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(1982)).
On July 16, 2012, Plaintiff’s decedent, Michael Lane Hatton,
filed an application for disability insurance benefits (DIB),
alleging that he became disabled on July 15, 2002 (Tr. 12).2
Hatton’s application was denied, and he pursued and exhausted his
administrative remedies before the Commissioner (Tr. 1-5 (Appeals
Plaintiff Anita Lynn Stamper is the daughter of Michael Lane Hatton and the
executor of his estate. Hatton died after his claim was denied by the ALJ but
before the filing of this civil action.
(administrative hearing)). This case is ripe for review pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
This case is unique in that Hatton first approached his local
Social Security office concerning benefits a number of years after
he stopped working (Tr. 31, 226).
His “last insured” date for the
purposes of his application was June 30, 2007 (Tr. 12). To be
entitled to DIB, a claimant must be “under a disability” within
the meaning of the Social Security Act as of the date his insured
status expired. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(c)(1); Higgs v. Bowen,
880 F.2d 860, 862 (6th Cir. 1988). Therefore, Hatton was required
to show that he was disabled as of June 30, 2007. See 42 U.S.C. §§
He was 63 years old at the time of the Commissioner’s final
decision on July 16, 2014, and 56 on the date his insured status
expired (Tr. 66 (date of birth)). He graduated from high school
and previously worked as a machine operator manufacturing truck
axles and as a farm worker on a horse farm (Tr. 176, 186).
Following a hearing that took place on March 31, 2014, and in
a decision dated July 16, 2014, the administrative law judge (ALJ)
found that Hatton had severe impairments consisting of peripheral
arterial disease; a history of myocardial infarction; diabetes;
and obesity (Tr. 14, finding no. 3). The ALJ went on to find that
none of the impairments were per se disabling (Tr. 14-16, finding
no. 4). The ALJ determined that Hatton had the residual functional
capacity to perform medium work with some additional limitations:
he could stand or walk six hours a day; sit six hours a day; and
push or pull consistent with medium work (Tr. 16-20, finding no.
determined that as of June 30, 2007, Hatton could have returned to
his previous work as a groundskeeper or machine operator and could
perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national
economy, such as hand packer or housekeeper/cleaner (Tr. 20-21,
finding no. 6). Thus, the ALJ found that Hatton was not disabled
(Tr. 21-22, finding no. 7).
When reviewing a decision made by the ALJ, the Court may not
“‘try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence, or decide
questions of credibility.’” Ulman v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d
709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506,
509 (6th Cir. 2007)).
“The ALJ’s findings are conclusive as long
as they are supported by substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g);
Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 353 (6th Cir. 2001) (citations
Substantial evidence “‘means such relevant evidence as
a reasonable mind might accept.’” Foster, 279 F.3d at 353 (quoting
Kirk v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6th
On appeal from the decision of the Commissioner, Plaintiff
argues that the ALJ erred when he failed to provide Hatton with a
de novo hearing because the ALJ “deferred fully” to the opinion of
Plaintiff cites to ALJ Kayser’s statement during the hearing that,
with respect to an agency opinion, “[f]or me to reverse, there has
to be some evidence that [state agency staff] didn’t consider.
mean, for me to go back, I can’t just simply go back and say you
were—you read this thing wrong, you didn’t consider that. That’s
not the way it works.” (Tr. 34).
Plaintiff also points to an
exchange between hearing counsel, who asked, “But, Your Honor,
you’re not bound by their findings, are you?” and the ALJ, who
The heck I’m not; I’m not a medical expert. I
can’t reverse their decision based upon my
interpretation of the records. No, you’ve got
to be a medical doctor. I’m not a medical
doctor. So they—so it presents a difficult
problem because they had the entire file in
front of them. They went back and they found
there were non-severe conditions. What we look
for is some evidence that they didn’t have at
the time available to clarify that. And right
now, and from what I’m seeing, they had the
entire file in front of them and they made
Plaintiff argues that, based on these exchanges, it is clear
that the ALJ did not independently assess his RFC but, instead,
believed that an ALJ had no choice but to accept the opinion of
the state agency physician, Dr. Hernandez. Having reviewed the
record, the Court disagrees.
First, the exchange cited by Plaintiff did not address the
development of an RFC for Hatton.
Rather, hearing counsel and the
Plaintiff’s impairments were “severe” within the meaning of the
regulations at step two of the sequential evaluation process.
Plaintiff’s hearing counsel and the ALJ were discussing whether
impairment or not.
It was Dr. Pamela Green, a state disability
determination service medical consultant, and not Dr. Hernandez,
who opined that Hatton’s “peripheral vascular (arterial disease)”
was not a severe impairment.
Dr. Hernandez actually offered no
opinion as to his residual functional capacity considering his
medical condition and history based on the record available.
ALJ stated that he would review the record for evidence to Dr.
Green’s opinion and upon which a different conclusion as to the
severity of Hatton’s impairments could be reached.
having done so, the ALJ concluded that the impairment was severe.
The situation is not as Plaintiff describes, and the Court could
end its analysis here.
That said, the ALJ correctly understood his role during the
determination process: “[a]n ALJ is not permitted to substitute
her own medical judgment for that of a treating physician and may
not make her own independent medical findings.” Bledsoe v. Comm'r
of Soc. Sec., No. 1:09CV564, 2011 WL 549861, at *7 (S.D. Ohio Feb.
8, 2011) (citing Simpson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 344 F. App'x 181,
194 (6th Cir. 2009); Rohan v. Chater, 98 F.3d 966, 970 (7th Cir.
This is because “an ALJ is not free to set his own
expertise against that of a physician who presents competent
evidence.” Id. (quoting McCain v. Director, Office of Workers
Compensation Programs, 58 F. App'x 184, 193 (6th Cir. 2003)).
concerning Hatton’s residual functional capacity the “greatest
weight” and incorporating Dr. Hernandez’s opinion concerning these
limitations into the RFC assessment, as Plaintiff argues.
Commissioner points out, [i]n “appropriate circumstances, opinions
from State agency [medical experts] may be entitled to greater
weight than the opinions of treating or examining sources,” See
Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180, at *3, and
giving a reviewing source’s opinion greater weight is not, by
itself, reversible error. See Blakley v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 581
F.3d 399, 409 (6th Cir. 2009); Combs v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 459
F.3d 640, 651 (6th Cir. 2006).
Nor is the Court concerned with
Plaintiff’s complaint that the ALJ ‘gave no particular weight to
any other evidence or opinion” besides that of Dr. Hernandez
because, as Plaintiff tacitly acknowledges by failing to cite to
any evidence of record, Dr. Hernandez provided the only statement
from a medical source addressing residual functional capacity.
Since Plaintiff has failed to argue with citation to the record
that Dr. Hernandez’s opinion was inconsistent with the evidence of
record, the Court considers the matter no further.
See 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1527(c)(4) (opinions that are not inconsistent with the
record are entitled to more weight).
The ALJ did not err in this
Finally, there is no merit to Plaintiff’s argument that the
ALJ did not consider the combined impact of Hatton’s impairments
on the RFC. True, the ALJ discussed each of the impairments in
turn, but “[t]he fact that each element of the record was discussed
individually hardly suggests that the totality of the record was
not considered . . . .” See Gooch v. Sec’y of Health & Human
Servs., 833 F.2d 589, 592 (6th Cir. 1987).
Rather, an ALJ
sufficiently considers a claimant’s impairments in combination
when he refers to “a combination of impairments” in evaluating
whether a claimant meets a listing. Id. at 591-92 (sufficient to
refer to a plaintiff’s “impairments” in the plural at step three).
The ALJ referred to Hatton’s “combination of impairments”, even
though he discussed each element of the record individually (Tr.
14-20), and did all that was required.
Gooch, 833 F.2d at 591-
Further, in reaching his decision, the ALJ also relied on Dr.
(“Allegations: complications from diabetes, sleep apnea, kidney
problems, peripheral artery disease, bad eyes, diastolic heart
failure.”) (Tr. 80).
This is more meaningful than Plaintiff would
have the Court believe.
See Villarreal v. Sec’y of Health & Human
Servs., 818 F.2d 461, 464 (6th Cir. 1987) (“structure” of ALJ’s
The Court is not persuaded that the ALJ failed to
consider the combined impact of Hatton’s impairments and did not
err in this regard.
Accordingly, for all of the reasons set forth above, IT IS
That Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (DE 9) is
that Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (DE 10) is
This the 6th day of October, 2017.
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