Thomas v. SSA
ORDER: Thomass motion for summary judgment, [R. 12] is DENIED, and theCommissioners motion for summary judgment, [R. 14] is GRANTED. Judgment shall issue contemporaneously w/this opinion. Signed by Judge Karen K. Caldwell on 6/9/2017.(RC)cc: COR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
Civil No. 16-222-ART
*** *** *** ***
Marilyn Thomas applied to the Social Security Administration for disability and
The agency denied her application.
Thomas now seeks
judicial review of that decision, arguing that the agency’s Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) erred in reviewing the evidence and concluding that Thomas was not disabled. But
substantial evidence in the record supports the agency’s final decision. The Court must
therefore grant summary judgment to the Commissioner, and deny summary judgment to
Marilyn Thomas is a 57-year-old woman from Wooten, Kentucky. Tr. at 30−31.
After graduating from college with a two-year degree, Thomas worked as a school secretary.
Id. at 921.
But in 2013, she stopped working because of lower-back pain and bone
deformities from the waist down.
Id. at 154.
Thomas now suffers from back pain,
degenerative joint disease, hypertension, depression, and anxiety. Id. at 16−17. On August
5, 2013, Thomas applied for disability-insurance benefits, alleging an onset date of May 31,
2013. Id. at 132. A few months later, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) held an
administrative hearing to evaluate Thomas’s application. Id. at 13. ALJ Bonnie Kittinger
presided over the hearings and reviewed all of the evidence that Thomas submitted about
her medical conditions. Id. at 28−53. Thomas, represented by counsel, and Ms. Summer
Gawthrop, a vocational expert, testified at the hearing. Id.
Following the hearing, ALJ Kittinger applied the traditional five-step analysis for
Social Security decisions. See id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 404.920; Jones v. Comm’r
of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). In that analysis, the ALJ made several
findings: First, Thomas had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 31, 2013,
the alleged onset date of her disability.
Tr. at 15.
Second, Thomas had two severe
impairments: osteoarthritis and degenerative lumbar disc disease. Id. at 15−16. And,
although Thomas was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, her mental limitations were
not severe. Id. Third, Thomas had the residual functional capacity to perform light work—
but she was limited in her ability to climb stairs, kneel, stoop, and withstand extreme
temperatures. Id. at 18. Finally, even though Thomas could not return to serving as a
school secretary as she had in the past, she could perform a less-demanding secretary job,
as it is generally performed. Id. at 20.
Based on those findings, the ALJ determined that Thomas was not disabled as
defined under the Social Security Act.
Id. at 20.
The agency’s Appeals Council later
declined review, making the ALJ’s determination the final decision of the Social Security
Commissioner. Id. at 1−5. That decision is now ripe for judicial review.
The Court conducts a limited review of the Commissioner’s decision under the Social
Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court may only evaluate whether the ALJ applied
the correct legal standard and made factual findings that are supported by substantial
evidence in the record. Id.; see also Rabbers v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 582 F.3d 647,
651 (6th Cir. 2009) (articulating the same standard for judicial review by the court of
appeals). Substantial evidence means “more than a scintilla of evidence” that “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). In assessing the evidence and the ALJ’s
decision, the Court cannot “try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor
decide questions of credibility.” Id.; see Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir.
Thomas makes only one argument here: that ALJ Kittinger’s conclusion that
Thomas could return to secretarial work is “unsupported by the evidence of the record.” See
R. 12 at 6. She then points to the opinions of three people that, in her view, suggest that
she is totally disabled and therefore unable to work: Dr. Alicia Pearce, a consultative
examiner; Ms. Leanne Scott, a licensed psychological associate; and Ms. Summer
Gawthrop, the vocational expert. See id. The Court will address the findings of each in
Dr. Alicia Pearce. Thomas first asserts that Dr. Pearce’s medical opinions show that
she cannot work because she “would reasonably have trouble sitting or standing for
extended periods.” Id. Indeed, Dr. Pearce so opined. But she also reported that Thomas’s
physical exam was “otherwise unremarkable” and that she had “little limitations” for work
activities. Tr. at 914. Moreover, another doctor, Dr. Rebecca Luking, reported that Thomas
could perform medium-exertion work and could sit for about six hours at a time—albeit
with a few postural limitations. Id. at 78−81. The ALJ considered and weighed all of that
evidence and decided to adopt an even “less demanding range of light work” than Dr.
Luking recommended. Id. at 19.
Ms. Leanne Scott. Thomas next turns to the opinion of Ms. Scott, a psychological
associate who examined Thomas under a psychologist’s supervision. R. 12 at 6. Ms. Scott
diagnosed Thomas with a depressive disorder and opined that she had severe limitations in
her ability to “tolerate stress and the pressure of day-to-day employment” and to “sustain
attention and concentration” in performing “simple repetitive tasks.” Tr. at 922. On the
other hand, Dr. Cole, who conducted a different examination, found that Thomas had no
symptoms of either depression or anxiety and concluded that she “d[id] not require
psychological treatment[.]” Id. at 495−96.
After reviewing that evidence, the ALJ found Ms. Scott’s assessment to be “sharply
at odds” with Dr. Cole’s findings and the fact that Thomas had not pursued mental-health
Id. at 16.
He accordingly afforded more weight to Dr. Cole’s opinion,
considering his vast training and experience and the consistency of his report with
Thomas’s medical history. The ALJ’s decision to rely more on Dr. Cole’s opinion than Ms.
Scott’s was a decision about credibility. And Thomas does not suggest that the ALJ made
that decision unreasonably; nor does the evidence suggest that was the case. Thus, this
Court will not upend the ALJ’s analysis. See Rogers v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec’y, 486 F.3d 234,
247−48 (6th Cir. 2007) (explaining that a reviewing court will only reconsider an ALJ’s
credibility determination when it is unreasonable or unsupported by the record).
Ms. Summer Gawthorp. Finally, Thomas highlights Ms. Gawthorp’s testimony that
Thomas could not perform her past work as a school secretary. R. 12 at 6. At the hearing,
the ALJ asked Ms. Gawthrop a series of questions, including whether a hypothetical person
with Thomas’s limitations could perform secretarial work. Tr. at 49−50. Ms. Gawthorp
testified that the hypothetical person could perform secretarial work, which is typically
sedentary in exertion, but could not do so at the higher level that Thomas had performed it
in the past. Id.
The ALJ ultimately concluded the same about Thomas specifically: that she could
not return to her exact job as a school secretary, which required above-average exertion, but
that she could still perform the typical, more sedentary secretarial work. Id. at 20. That
meant, under the SSA’s regulations, that Thomas was not disabled. Id.; see 20 C.F.R.
404.1520(f) (explaining that the SSA will only find a claimant disabled if her impairment
prevents her from performing some work that exists in the national economy). Thus, Ms.
Gawthorp’s testimony about Thomas’s specific past work does not change the ALJ’s
To summarize, Thomas’s chief complaint about the ALJ’s review of her case is that
the review led to the wrong result. To her credit, Thomas points to some evidence in the
record that could lead a different ALJ to a different conclusion. But it is not this Court’s job
to assess credibility, weigh the evidence, and decide whether Thomas is disabled. Cutlip,
25 F.3d at 286; see Bass, 499 F.3d at 509 (“If the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial
evidence, then reversal would not be warranted even if substantial evidence would support
the opposite conclusion.”). That job belongs to the ALJ. See Hardaway v. Sec’y of Health &
Human Servs., 823 F.2d 922, 928 (6th Cir. 1987). The only question on judicial review is
whether the ALJ applied the right legal standard to reach a conclusion that is supported by
substantial evidence in the record. Rabbers, 582 F.3d at 651. Here, the answer is yes, and
that is all the law requires.
Thomas contests the SSA’s determination that she is not entitled to disability
payments. Substantial evidence, however, supports the ALJ’s decision. Accordingly, it is
ORDERED that Thomas’s motion for summary judgment, R. 12, is DENIED, and the
Commissioner’s motion for summary judgment, R. 14, is GRANTED. The Court will issue
a judgment contemporaneously with this opinion.
Dated June 9, 2017.
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?