Parks v. SSA
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER: (1) Pla's 13 Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED. (2) Commissioner's 14 Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED. (3) Judgment in favor of the Commissioner shall enter promptly. Signed by Judge Gregory F. VanTatenhove on August 25, 2017. (AWD) cc: COR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
JOYCE ANN PARKS,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
Civil No. 5:16-cv-00106-GFVT
Joyce Ann Parks seeks judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner
of Social Security, which denied Parks’s claim for disability insurance benefits. Ms. Parks
brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), alleging various errors on the part of the ALJ
considering the matter. The Court, having reviewed the record and for the reasons set forth
herein, will DENY Ms. Parks’s motion for summary judgment but will GRANT judgment in
favor of the Commissioner.
Plaintiff Joyce Ann Parks filed an application for Title II disability insurance benefits in
July 2013, alleging disability beginning June 1, 2010. [Transcript (hereinafter, “Tr.”) 13.] Ms.
Parks had previously filed a Title II application in November 2010 but had that application
denied by both the original Administrative Law Judge and the Appeals Council; no appeal to
federal court followed. [Id.] According to Parks’s motion for summary judgment, she filed her
July 2013 application for disability benefits due to her coronary artery disease, complex regional
pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, restless leg
syndrome, residual effects of a neck surgery, and peripheral artery disease. [R. 13 at 3.] Parks’s
claims for Title II benefits were denied initially and upon reconsideration. [Tr. 13.]
Subsequently, a hearing was conducted at Parks’s request. [Id.] Following the hearing,
Administrative Law Judge Roger L. Reynolds issued a final decision denying Parks’s claim for
benefits. [Tr. 13-22.]
To evaluate a claim of disability for Title II disability insurance benefits, an ALJ
conducts a five-step analysis. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, if a claimant is performing a
substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, if a claimant
does not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limit her
physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, she does not have a severe impairment and
is not “disabled” as defined by the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Third, if a claimant’s
impairments meet or equal one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1, she is “disabled.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Before moving on to the fourth step,
the ALJ must use all of the relevant evidence in the record to determine the claimant’s residual
functional capacity (“RFC”), which assesses an individual’s ability to perform certain physical
and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite any impairment experienced by the
individual. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. Fourth, the ALJ must determine
whether the clamant has the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work, and if a
claimant’s impairments do not prevent her from doing past relevant work, she is not “disabled.”
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Fifth, if a claimant’s impairments (considering her RFC, age,
education, and past work) prevent her from doing other work that exists in the national economy,
then she is “disabled.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).
Through step four of the analysis, “the claimant bears the burden of proving the existence
and severity of limitations caused by her impairments and the fact that she is precluded from
performing her past relevant work.” Jones v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir.
2003). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to identify a significant number of
jobs that accommodate the claimant’s profile, but the claimant retains the ultimate burden of
proving her lack of residual functional capacity. Id.; Jordon v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 548 F.3d
417, 423 (6th Cir. 2008).
In this case, at step one, ALJ Reynolds found that Parks had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since June 1, 2010, the alleged onset date, through September 30, 2012, her date
last insured. [Tr. 16.] At step two, the ALJ found Parks suffers from the severe impairments of
polyarthralgias and complex regional pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease of
the cervical spine, coronary artery disease, residual effects of surgery to the right side of the neck
and ear, restless leg syndrome, peripheral artery disease of the right leg, and now status post stent
placement to the right common iliac artery. [Id.] At step three, the ALJ determined Parks’s
combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20
C.F.R. Part 404. [Tr. 17-18.] Before moving on to step four, the ALJ considered the entire
record and determined Parks possessed the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §
404.1567(b), with certain limitations described as follows:
[N]o lifting or carrying more than 20 pounds occasionally; 10 pounds frequently;
no standing and/or walking more than six hours out of an eight-hour work day; no
sitting for more than six hours out of an eight-hour work day; unlimited
pushing/pulling up the exertional level indicated; no more than frequent balancing
or climbing of ramps or stairs; no more than occasional stooping, kneeling,
crouching, and crawling; no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds; and requires a
sit/stand option with no prolonged standing or walking in excess of thirty minutes
without a five minute break.
[Tr. 18.] This RFC is effectively the same as that articulated in the prior decision denying
Parks’s first claim for benefits. [See Tr. 70.]
After explaining how he determined Parks’s RFC [see Tr. 18-20], the ALJ found at step
four that, based on this RFC, Parks is capable of performing various jobs that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy. [Tr. 20-21.] Accordingly, ALJ Reynolds concluded Parks
was not disabled at any time from June 1, 2010, through September 30, 2012, pursuant to 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). The Appeals Council then denied Parks’s request for reconsideration, and
Parks now seeks review in this Court.
The Court’s review is generally limited to whether there is substantial evidence in the
record to support the ALJ’s decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Wright v. Massanari, 321 F.3d 611,
614 (6th Cir. 2003); Shelman v. Heckler, 821 F.2d 316, 319-20 (6th Cir. 1987). “Substantial
evidence” is “more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Cutlip v.
Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994) (citing Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). The substantial evidence standard “presupposes that there is a zone
of choice within which [administrative] decision makers can go either way, without interference
by the courts.” Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (quoting Baker v. Heckler,
730 F.2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir. 1984)).
To determine whether substantial evidence exists, courts must examine the record as a
whole. Cutlip, 25 F.3d at 286 (citing Kirk v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 535
(6th Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 957 (1983)). However, a reviewing court may not
conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or make credibility determinations.
Ulman v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012); see also Bradley v. Sec’y of
Health & Human Servs., 862 F.2d 1224, 1228 (6th Cir. 1988). Rather, if the Commissioner’s
decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court
would decide the matter differently, and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite
conclusion. See Ulman, 693 F.3d at 714; Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007);
Her v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999).
As an initial matter, this is not Ms. Parks’s first application for disability benefits.
Although Parks never mentions the applicability of this procedural requirement, ALJ Reynolds
was required to apply the principles explained by the Sixth Circuit in Drummond v. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec., 126 F.3d 837, 840-43 (6th Cir. 1997), because this is Parks’s second attempt at
obtaining Title II benefits. [See also Tr. 13.] The Drummond case requires that when an ALJ
makes a final determination on a disability claim, subsequent ALJs are bound by the prior
determination unless there is a showing of “new and material evidence,” or a change in the
applicable law or regulations. Drummond, 126 F.3d at 842 (“Absent evidence of an
improvement in a claimant’s condition, a subsequent ALJ is bound by the findings of a previous
ALJ.”). The Social Security Administration has further clarified the concepts articulated by the
Sixth Circuit in Drummond by restating its precise holding as follows:
When adjudicating a subsequent disability claim with an unadjudicated period
arising under the same title of the Act as the prior claim, adjudicators must adopt
such a finding from the final decision by an ALJ or the Appeals Council on the
prior claim in determining whether the claimant is disabled with respect to the
unadjudicated period unless there is new and material evidence relating to such a
finding or there has been a change in the law, regulations or rulings affecting the
finding or the method for arriving at the finding.
See AR 98-4(6), 1998 WL 283902, *3 (June 1, 1998).
Accordingly, a prior ALJ’s finding concerning a claimant’s RFC has a preclusive effect
on future administrative proceedings if no new and material evidence is presented showing that
the claimant’s condition has significantly changed. See, e.g., Blevins v. Astrue, 2012 WL
3149343, *3 (E.D. Ky. July 31, 2012). To demonstrate such changed circumstances, “a
comparison between circumstances existing at the time of the prior decision and circumstances
existing at the time of the review is necessary.” Kennedy v. Astrue, 247 F. App’x 761, 768 (6th
Cir. 2007) (citing Drummond, 126 F.3d at 842). In the absence of “changed circumstances,” the
prior ALJ’s findings are binding on any subsequent claim. Id.
Here, ALJ Reynolds correctly applied the Drummond standard, noting that Parks’s
“current claim arises out of the same title of the Social Security Act; there is no evidence of
improvement in the claimant’s condition; and no new and additional evidence or changed
circumstances that provide a basis for different decisional findings.” [Tr. 13.] In light of this,
Reynolds explained he found “no basis for reopening the [prior] decision.” [Tr. 14.] Although
Parks in some ways frames her motion for summary judgment as one covering the entire period
of her alleged disability, she is not entitled to a second bite at the apple for a period that has
already been adjudicated. See Drummond, 126 F.3d at 841 (“Decisions made by the
Administration cannot be repeatedly reconsidered.”) Therefore, the Court must review ALJ
Reynolds’s decision with this specific procedural posture in mind and only consider evidence in
the record since the time of the prior decision when evaluating Parks’s claims.
As far as substantive arguments go, Parks first contends the ALJ failed to view certain
records from her treating cardiologist Dr. David J. O’Reilly as dispositive evidence of changed
conditions. Specifically, Parks references a January 2013 letter drafted by Dr. O’Reilly wherein
he explains that he recently discovered he could not find a pulse in Parks’s right groin area,
which in turn led him to determine Parks suffers from a “chronically occluded proximal right
common iliac artery with reconstitution down in the groin by collaterals from the left.” [Tr.
481.] According to Parks, the letter “is objective clinical evidence of an impairment that could
readily be expected to cause the type of extreme pain alleged by the Plaintiff.” [R. 13 at 8.]
Parks also draws the Court’s attention to a March 2014 office note from Dr. O’Reilly, wherein he
references Ms. Parks’s pain and her unfortunate resultant narcotics dependency. [See R. 13 at 89; Tr. 468-71.]
The Court does not necessarily disagree with Ms. Parks’s contention that the groin issue
could be an objective reason for the leg pain she alleges now and in her initial disability
proceeding, or Parks’s assertion that there was a reasonable explanation for her drug
dependency. [See Tr. 19; Tr. 71.] But just because Dr. O’Reilly’s treatment records support
Parks’s position in some way does not entitle Parks to relief. The issue in every Social Security
appeal is whether the ALJ’s decision was supported by substantial evidence. As explained at the
outset, the substantial evidence standard is deferential, as it “presupposes that there is a zone of
choice within which decision makers can go either way, without interference from the court.”
Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545. If the decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be affirmed
even if the Court would decide the matter differently and even if substantial evidence also
supports the opposite conclusion. Her, 203 F.3d at 389-90. Further, as the Commissioner points
out, the ALJ did, in fact, recognize that Ms. Parks’s clinical impairments “could reasonably be
expected to cause the alleged symptoms.” [Tr. 19; see also R. 14 at 7.] Despite this, the ALJ
found that the claimant’s statements regarding her functional limitations were not entirely
credible. [See Tr. 19.] Based on the record before him, the Court finds he was entitled to do so.
This leads directly to Parks’s second main argument: that the ALJ failed to adequately
evaluate her allegations of disabling pain. Ms. Parks takes issue with the ALJ’s decision to
discredit some of her “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of
[her] symptoms” as not entirely credible. [See Tr. 19.] And Parks cites various medical records
which do support her allegations of pain. [R. 13 at 10-11.] Nevertheless, as the Court has
explained above and as the Commissioner points out in her brief, the key inquiry is not whether
substantial evidence supports the claimant’s allegations. Instead, the Court must consider
whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision and further, because of the procedural
rules at play in this case, what effect Drummond has on the matter. Overall, Ms. Parks bears the
burden of “show[ing] that her condition so worsened in comparison to her earlier condition that
she was unable to perform substantial gainful activity.” Priest v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 3 F. App’x
275, 276 (6th Cir. 2001) (citing Casey v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 987 F.2d 1230, 123233 (6th Cir. 1993)).
The ALJ who presided over Parks’s first disability application hearing considered Parks’s
allegations of pain in detail, ultimately explaining that Parks’s medically determinable
impairments such as her fibromyalgia, restless leg syndrome, degenerative disc disease of the
cervical spine, and depression could reasonably cause the alleged symptoms. [Tr. 72.] Despite
this, that ALJ found that Parks was not entirely credible when it came to her pain allegations.
[Id.] Subsequently, ALJ Reynolds agreed that Parks’s medical impairments could reasonably
cause the alleged symptoms, but that Parks’s statements were still not entirely credible for a
number of reasons articulated in the opinion. [See Tr. 19.] These reasons are supported by
substantial evidence, here, even if the claimant’s allegations are too. In the end, Ms. Parks has
simply failed to show a change in circumstances so as to overcome the Drummond presumption,
and there is no evidence of ALJ error warranting reversal or remand.
Therefore, the Court hereby ORDERS as follows:
1. Plaintiff Joyce Ann Park’s Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 13] is DENIED;
2. The Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 14] is GRANTED; and
3. Judgment in favor of the Commissioner shall enter promptly.
This the 25th day of August, 2017.
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