Lawson v. SSA
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER: (1) The decision of the Commissioner is found to be supported by substantial evidence and is AFFIRMED. (2) Pla's 12 MOTION for Summary Judgment is DENIED. (3) Dft's 14 MOTION for Summary Judgment is GRANTED. (4) A Judgment in favor of Dft Commissioner will be entered contemporaneously herewith. Signed by Judge David L. Bunning on September 10, 2017. (AWD) cc: COR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
CIVIL ACTION NO. 16-437-DLB
LINDA LOUISE LAWSON
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security
Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review
of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Court, having
reviewed the record, will affirm the Commissioner’s decision, as it is supported by
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On January 1, 2014, Plaintiff Linda Louise Lawson filed an application for disability
insurance benefits (“DIB”), alleging disability beginning on October 15, 2013. (Tr. 25556). Specifically, Plaintiff alleged that she was limited in her ability to work due to
degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 270).
Plaintiff’s claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 205-08, 213-19).
At Plaintiff’s request, an administrative hearing was conducted on October 14, 2015,
before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Don Paris. (Tr. 140-80). On November 16,
2015, ALJ Paris ruled that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 120-36). This decision
became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review
on September 28, 2016. (Tr. 1-7).
On November 28, 2016, Plaintiff filed the instant action. (Doc. # 1). This matter
has culminated in cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for the
Court’s review. (Docs. # 12 and 14).
Overview of the Process
Judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision is restricted to determining whether
it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.
See Cutlip v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994).
“Substantial evidence” is defined as “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.” Id. Courts are not to conduct a de novo review,
resolve conflicts in the evidence, or make credibility determinations. Id. Rather, the Court
must affirm the Commissioner’s decision, provided it is supported by substantial
evidence, even if the Court might have decided the case differently. See Her v. Comm’r
of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999). If supported by substantial evidence,
the Commissioner’s findings must be affirmed, even if there is evidence favoring Plaintiff’s
side. Listenbee v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 345, 349 (6th Cir. 1988).
Similarly, an administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial
evidence would have supported the opposite conclusion. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 780,
781-82 (6th Cir. 1996).
The ALJ, in determining disability, conducts a five-step analysis.
considers whether the claimant is still performing substantial gainful activity; Step Two,
whether any of the claimant’s impairments are “severe”; Step Three, whether the
impairments meet or equal a listing in the Listing of Impairments; Step Four, whether the
claimant can still perform her past relevant work; and Step Five, whether significant
numbers of other jobs exist in the national economy which the claimant can perform. As
to the last step, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the Commissioner. See
Jones v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003); Preslar v. Sec’y of
Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).
The ALJ’s Determination
At Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity from her alleged onset date, October 15, 2013, through her date last insured. (Tr.
At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status post L5/S1 discectomy in 2011 and
obesity. (Tr. 125). At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that “meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1." (Tr. 128).
Specifically, the ALJ considered Listing 1.02 and found that Plaintiff was “able to ambulate
effectively without weight bearing difficulty and perform fine and gross movements
effectively.” (Tr. 128). The ALJ also considered Listing 1.04 and found that the record
was “devoid of evidence of nerve root compression, spinal arachnoiditis, or lumbar spinal
stenosis with accompanying ineffective ambulation to independently initiate, sustain or
complete activities and sustain a reasonable walking pace over a sufficient distance to
carry out daily activities of living.” (Tr. 128-29).
At Step Four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with the exertional
and non-exertional limitations as follows:
[T]he claimant can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds
frequently. She can stand and walk for a total of six hours in an eight-hour
workday, and sit a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday. The claimant
occasionally can climb ramps and stairs and occasionally climb ladders,
ropes and scaffolds. She can occasionally kneel, crouch and crawl. She
must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, concentrated full-body
vibrations and avoid exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and
(Tr. 129). Based upon the RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not able to perform
her past relevant work. (Tr. 132). Accordingly, the ALJ proceeded to Step Five and found
that, considering Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs existed in
significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 133). The
ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social
Security Act, from the alleged onset date through the date of decision. Id.
Plaintiff advances one argument on appeal: that the ALJ’s decision was not
supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. # 12-1 at 1). However, a review of the ALJ’s
decision and the record show that the ALJ’s decision was indeed supported by substantial
evidence. In advancing her appeal, Plaintiff challenges the ALJ’s determination of her
credibility and the ALJ’s determination of her RFC.
The crux of Plaintiff’s motion is that the ALJ’s RFC is not based on the entire
record, but instead on a “flawed and incomplete evaluation of the evidence.” Id. at 2.
Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ ignored the evidence supporting Plaintiff’s
complaints of severe and disabling pain, instead focusing on other parts of the medical
evidence. Id. This contrast—between Plaintiff’s complaints of pain and the medical
evidence in the record—is the heart of the Court’s analysis.
The ALJ did not err in assessing Plaintiff’s credibility.
Subjective allegations of disabling symptoms, such as pain, are not sufficient to
independently support a finding of disability. Duncan v. Sec’y of Health and Human
Servs., 801 F.2d 847, 852 (6th Cir. 1986) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529). The methodology
for evaluating symptoms, such as pain, is codified in this section of the Code of Federal
Regulations, and requires the ALJ to “consider all [the claimant’s] symptoms, including
pain, and the extent to which [the claimant’s] symptoms can reasonably be accepted as
consistent with objective medical evidence and other evidence.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(a).
In evaluating the intensity and persistence of symptoms, including pain, the ALJ
considers “all of the available evidence, including [the claimant’s] history, the signs and
laboratory findings, and statements from [the claimant],” and the medical opinions in
20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(1).
The ALJ also considers objective medical
evidence to evaluate the intensity and persistence of a claimant’s symptoms; however,
the ALJ is prohibited from rejecting a claimant’s statements about intensity and
persistence of symptoms on the sole basis that the available objective medical evidence
does not support the claimant’s statements. Id. at (c)(2). Put simply, there “must be
evidence of an underlying medical condition and (1) there must be objective medical
evidence to confirm the severity of the alleged pain arising from that condition or (2) the
objectively determined medical condition must be of a severity which can reasonably be
expected to give rise to the alleged pain.” Duncan, 801 F.2d at 853 (quoting S.Rep. No.
466, 98th Cong., 2d Sess. 24, reprinted in 130 Cong.Rec. S6221 (daily ed. May 22,
Once the ALJ has made a determination on the claimant’s credibility, the
reviewing court must give great weight and deference to that conclusion. Walters v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec. 127 F.3d 525, 531 (6th Cir. 1997).
The ALJ found that Plaintiff had pain in her lower back, down her legs to her feet,
that the pain was constant except for maybe one good day per month, and that she had
trouble sleeping at night because of the pain. (Tr. 130). The ALJ considered that Plaintiff
had physical therapy treatment twice per month and did physical therapy exercise at
home, napped throughout the day, and could stoop, crouch, or squat, but could not bend
down. Id. The Plaintiff also walked about twenty minutes per day, and took a break and
rested afterwards. Id.
After considering the “totality of the evidence,” the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not
entirely credible, stating that the clinical findings and examination did not support her
claims regarding the severity of her pain and weakness. Id. No treating or examining
physician opined that Plaintiff was unable to work, and the ALJ found “little evidence in
the medical records to substantiate disabling symptoms greater than determined [in the
ALJ’s RFC decision].” (Tr. 131). In particular, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff’s alleged
weakness was unsubstantiated: in January 2014, Plaintiff’s records indicated only mildly
decreased strength in her feet and lower legs; in May 2014, Plaintiff’s gait and
neurological exam were normal; and in September 2015, the Plaintiff had normal lower
and upper motor strength and muscle tone. (Tr. 130-31). During the same time frame,
Plaintiff’s October 2013 emergency room visit showed no pain with palpitation and normal
appearing extremities; and in September 2015, the Plaintiff appeared in “no apparent
distress." (Tr. 131). X-rays showed clinical findings “consistent with degenerative and
arthritic changes.” Id.
Plaintiff argues that the medical evidence documented “severe, ongoing pain after
her surgery,” and that she “presented evidence that her pain was severe but the ALJ did
not consider it.” (Doc. # 12-1 at 10). The record belies these arguments: Exhibit 5F—the
last two treatment notes provided from Doctor Menke, Plaintiff’s back surgeon—show her
improving and recovering from the surgery quite well. (Tr. 458-59). In March 2012,
Doctor Menke indicated that Plaintiff was “making progress,” that sometimes her back
“goes out,” that she has been able to obtain relief through therapy for this issue, and that
“these episodes are certainly becoming less frequent.” (Tr. 459). Doctor Menke indicated
that if Plaintiff were to go back to work, he would limit her to the following work: “No lifting
over 20 lbs. occasionally, 10 lbs. frequently. No repetitive bending, stooping or twisting. I
would define repetitive as 4 repetitions per hour.” Id. He also stated that these restrictions
would be temporary, and that he would hope to lift them in May when Plaintiff returned
for follow up. Id. In May, Plaintiff returned to Doctor Menke and told him that “she [was]
doing very well.” (Tr. 458). She had “excellent 5/5 strength in the lower extremities.” Id.
As a result, Doctor Menke released Plaintiff from his care, stating that “she [had] no work
In February 2013, Plaintiff told the staff at the Lexington Clinic that she had started
having back pain “11 days ago … Pushing grandson on tractor. Worse last 5 days.
Midback with spasms.” (Tr. 456). Thus, the medical evidence does not document a direct
line of “severe, ongoing pain” from Plaintiff’s discectomy. In fact, the evidence cited by
Plaintiff shows that, despite Plaintiff’s claim that her back pain gets up to “10/10” (Tr. 419,
697, 700), and even “12/10” (Tr. 521), it is not as severe as before Plaintiff had back
surgery in 2011. (Tr. 419).
The ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s statements regarding the intensity, frequency,
and limiting effects of her symptoms were not entirely credible.
Having reviewed the
ALJ’s assessment of Plaintiff’s subjective complaints of pain and the objective medical
evidence, the Court finds no error in the ALJ’s determination of Plaintiff’s credibility.
The ALJ’s RFC assessment was supported by substantial evidence.
An RFC is “an administrative assessment of the extent to which an individual’s
medically determinable impairment(s), including any related symptoms, such as pain,
may cause physical or mental limitations or restrictions that may affect his or her capacity
to do work-related physical and mental activities.” SSR 96-8p, 61 Fed. Reg. 34474-01
(July 2, 1996). It is “not the least an individual can do despite his or her limitations or
restrictions, but the most.”
(emphasis in original); see also 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ assesses a claimant’s RFC and the total limiting effects of the
claimant’s impairment(s) “based on all of the relevant medical and other evidence.” 20
C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3), (e).
However, the ALJ is required to incorporate into his
assessment only those limitations that the ALJ finds credible. Irvin v. Social Sec. Admin.,
573 F. App’x 498, 502 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Casey v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs.,
987 F.2d 1230, 1235 (6th Cir. 1993)).
To determine the Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ analyzed the record, including medical
and testimonial evidence. (Tr. 129-32). The ALJ considered Plaintiff’s testimony at the
hearing on this matter, the questionnaires she completed, the objective radiographic
findings, the documentation of Plaintiff’s hospital visits, and the treatment notes from
Doctor Hutchinson, Doctor Flinchum, and Physical Therapist Steven Marcum. Id. The
ALJ also considered the June 2014 opinion of reviewing physician Doctor Guerrero and
medical consultant Doctor Dinwoodie’s mental assessment of Plaintiff. (Tr. 131-132).
Plaintiff’s argument emphasizes the contrast between her claims of severe pain
and the ALJ’s focus on the objective medical evidence. (Doc. 12-1 at 1). The ALJ did
not completely reject Plaintiff’s symptoms of pain, or that post-discectomy degenerative
disc disease may be the medical source of the pain, but determined that the evidence did
not show that the severity of the pain was supported by the medical evidence. (Tr. 130,
132). Considering the statements of the physicians and the objective medical evidence,
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination that Plaintiff’s pain was not as
severe as she claims, and no objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the
Plaintiff’s impairment would reasonably give rise to the pain she complains of. The ALJ’s
decision is supported by substantial evidence. See Her, 203 F.3d at 389-90 (“”Even if the
evidence could also support another conclusion, the decision of the [ALJ] must stand if
the evidence could reasonably support the conclusion reached.”).
Plaintiff’s primary request is that this Court find that the ALJ emphasized certain
aspects of the medical record in favor of others. However, this is tantamount to requesting
a de novo review of the record, a task far beyond the Court’s limited role in determining
whether the ALJ’s finding is supported by substantial evidence. See Roberts v. Astrue,
No. 1:09-01518, 2010 WL 2342492, at *9 (N.D. Ohio June 9, 2010). As stated earlier, an
administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence
would have supported the opposite conclusion. Chater, 99 F.3d at 781-82. Substantial
evidence exists to support the ALJ’s decision, and the Court’s review must stop there.
Accordingly, for the reasons stated herein, IT IS ORDERED as follows:
The decision of the Commissioner is found to be supported by substantial
evidence and is hereby AFFIRMED;
Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 12) is hereby DENIED;
Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 14) is hereby
A Judgment in favor of Defendant Commissioner will be entered
This 10th day of September, 2017.
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