Maddux v. Social Security Administration
MEMORANDUM OPINION OF THE COURT. Signed by District Judge Aleta A. Trauger on 8/28/17. (DOCKET TEXT SUMMARY ONLY-ATTORNEYS MUST OPEN THE PDF AND READ THE ORDER.)(am)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
MIDDLE DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
NANCY A. BERRYHILL
Acting Commissioner of
Plaintiff filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) to obtain
judicial review of the final decision of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”)
denying Plaintiff’s claim for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), as
provided under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). The case is currently pending on
Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record (Docket Entry No. 17), to which
Defendant has responded. (Docket Entry No. 19).
Upon review of the administrative record as a whole and consideration of the parties’
filings, Plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the administrative record (Docket Entry No. 17) will
Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on October 21, 2011.
See Transcript of the Administrative Record (Docket Entry No. 10) at 67-68.2 He alleged a
Nancy A. Berryhill became the Acting Commissioner of Social Security on January 23, 2017.
Pursuant to Rule 25(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Nancy A. Berryhill is substituted for
former Acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin as the defendant in this suit.
The Transcript of the Administrative Record is hereinafter referenced by the abbreviation “AR”
followed by the corresponding page number(s) as numbered in large black print on the bottom right
corner of each page. All other filings are hereinafter referenced by the abbreviation “DE” followed by the
corresponding docket entry number and page number(s) where appropriate.
disability onset date of October 17, 2011. AR 67-68. Plaintiff asserted that he was unable to
work due to left arm nerve damage, a broken neck, a broken shoulder, a bruised left side,
depression, and anxiety. AR 75-76.
Plaintiff’s applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. AR 67-70.
Pursuant to his request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), Plaintiff
appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before ALJ Mary Ellis Richardson on October
22, 2013. AR 33. On April 16, 2014, the ALJ denied the claim. AR 14-16. On June 24, 2015, the
Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for a review of the ALJ’s decision (AR 1-5), thereby
making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. This civil action was
thereafter timely filed, and the court has jurisdiction. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
II. THE ALJ FINDINGS
The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 16, 2014. AR 14-16. Based upon the
record, the ALJ made the following enumerated findings:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act
through December 31, 2015.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 17,
2011, the alleged onset date. (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: status post neck fusion; back
disorder; status post gunshot wound; mood disorder; anxiety disorder; depressive
disorder; and cognitive disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that
meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR
part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526,
416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the
claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of
light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The claimant can
lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently and can stand/walk and sit
each 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. He could frequently climb ramps or stairs and
occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant could frequently
balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant can frequently reach above
the shoulder with the right arm and never reach above the shoulder with the left
arm. The claimant should avoid working in close proximity to moving mechanical
parts and in high, exposed places. The claimant is able to perform simple, and low
level tasks over an 8-hour workday with appropriate breaks and is limited to work
that requires occasional interaction with the public.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and
7. The claimant was born on July 26, 1980, and was 31 years old, which is defined
as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR
404.1563 and 416.963).
8. The claimant has a high school education and is able to communicate in English
(20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability
because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding
that the claimant is “not disabled,” whether or not the claimant has transferable
job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
10. Considering the claimant’s age, education, work experience, and residual
functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national
economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969,
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security
Act, from October 17, 2011, through the date of this decision (20 CFR
404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)
III. REVIEW OF THE RECORD
The parties and the ALJ have thoroughly summarized and discussed the medical and
testimonial evidence in the administrative record. Accordingly, the court will discuss those
matters only to the extent necessary to analyze the parties’ arguments.
IV. DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
A. Standard of Review
The determination of disability under the Act is an administrative decision. The only
questions before this court upon judicial review are: (i) whether the decision of the
Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence, and (ii) whether the Commissioner made
legal errors in the process of reaching the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842 (1971) (adopting and defining
substantial evidence standard in context of Social Security cases); Kyle v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec.,
609 F.3d 847, 854 (6th Cir. 2010). The Commissioner’s decision must be affirmed if it is
supported by substantial evidence, “even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would
have supported an opposite conclusion.” Blakley v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 406 (6th
Cir. 2009) (quoting Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)); Jones v. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 477 (6th Cir. 2003); Her v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90
(6th Cir. 1999).
Substantial evidence is defined as “more than a mere scintilla” and “such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson,
402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S. Ct. 206, 83 L.
Ed. 126 (1938)); Rogers v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007); LeMaster v.
Weinberger, 533 F.2d 337, 339 (6th Cir. 1976) (quoting Sixth Circuit opinions adopting
language substantially similar to that in Richardson).
The court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited to the record made in the
administrative hearing process. Jones v. Secretary, 945 F.2d 1365, 1369 (6th Cir. 1991). A
reviewing court may not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence, or decide questions
of credibility. See, e.g., Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984) (citing Myers v.
Richardson, 471 F.2d 1265, 1268 (6th Cir. 1972)). The court must accept the ALJ’s explicit
findings and determination, unless the record as a whole is without substantial evidence to
support the ALJ’s determination. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See, e.g., Houston v. Sec’y of Health &
Human Servs., 736 F.2d 365, 366 (6th Cir. 1984).
B. Determining Disability at the Administrative Level
The claimant has the ultimate burden of establishing an entitlement to benefits by proving
his “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically
determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which
has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42
U.S.C. § 432(d)(1)(A). The asserted impairment(s) must be demonstrated by medically
acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 432(d)(3) and
1382c(a)(3)(D); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(a), (c), and 404.1513(d). “Substantial gainful activity”
not only includes previous work performed by the claimant, but also, considering the claimant’s
age, education, and work experience, any other relevant work that exists in the national economy
in significant numbers, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which
the claimant lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists, or whether the claimant would be
hired if he applied. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
In the proceedings before the Social Security Administration, the Commissioner must
employ a five-step, sequential evaluation process in considering the issue of the claimant’s
alleged disability. See Heston v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001); Abbot
v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990). First, the claimant must show that he is not
engaged in “substantial gainful activity” at the time disability benefits are sought. Cruse v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 502 F.3d 532, 539 (6th Cir. 2007); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).
Second, the claimant must show that he suffers from a severe impairment that meets the 12month durational requirement. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). See also
Edwards v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 113 F. App’x 83, 85 (6th Cir. 2004). Third, if the claimant has
satisfied the first two steps, the claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry, regardless
of age, education or work experience, if the impairment at issue either appears on the regulatory
list of impairments that are sufficiently severe as to prevent any gainful employment or equals a
listed impairment. Combs v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 459 F.3d 640, 643 (6th Cir. 2006); 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). A claimant is not required to show the existence of a listed
impairment in order to be found disabled, but such showing results in an automatic finding of
disability that ends the inquiry. See Combs, supra; Blankenship v. Bowen, 874 F.2d 1116, 1122
(6th Cir. 1989).
If the claimant’s impairment does not render him presumptively disabled, the fourth step
evaluates the claimant’s residual functional capacity in relationship to his past relevant work.
Combs, supra. “Residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) is defined as “the most [the claimant] can
still do despite [his] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1). In determining a claimant’s RFC,
for purposes of the analysis required at steps four and five, the ALJ is required to consider the
combined effect of all the claimant’s impairments, mental and physical, exertional and
nonexertional, severe and nonsevere. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(B), (5)(B); Foster v. Bowen,
853 F.2d 483, 490 (6th Cir. 1988). At the fourth step, the claimant has the burden of proving an
inability to perform past relevant work or proving that a particular past job should not be
considered relevant. Cruse, 502 F.3d at 539; Jones, 336 F.3d at 474. If the claimant cannot
satisfy the burden at the fourth step, disability benefits must be denied because the claimant is
not disabled. Combs, supra.
If a claimant is not presumed disabled but shows that past relevant work cannot be
performed, the burden of production shifts at step five to the Commissioner to show that the
claimant, in light of the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work experience, can perform other
substantial gainful employment and that such employment exists in significant numbers in the
national economy. Longworth v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005)
(quoting Walters v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 529 (6th Cir. 1997)). See also Felisky v.
Bowen, 35 F.3d 1027, 1035 (6th Cir. 1994). To rebut a prima facie case, the Commissioner must
come forward with proof of the existence of other jobs a claimant can perform. Longworth, 402
F.3d at 595. See also Kirk v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 528 (6th Cir. 1981),
cert. denied, 461 U.S. 957, 103 S. Ct. 2428, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1315 (1983) (upholding the validity of
the medical-vocational guidelines grid as a means for the Commissioner of carrying his burden
under appropriate circumstances). Even if the claimant’s impairments prevent the claimant from
doing past relevant work, if other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that
the claimant can perform, the claimant is not disabled. Rabbers v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d
647, 652 (6th Cir. 2009). See also Tyra v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 896 F.2d 1024,
1028-29 (6th Cir. 1990); Farris v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 773 F.2d 85, 88-89 (6th Cir.
1985); Mowery v. Heckler, 771 F.2d 966, 969-70 (6th Cir. 1985).
If the question of disability can be resolved at any point in the sequential evaluation
process, the claim is not reviewed further. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). See also Higgs v. Bowen,
880 F.2d 860, 863 (6th Cir. 1988) (holding that resolution of a claim at step two of the evaluative
process is appropriate in some circumstances).
C. The ALJ’s Five-Step Evaluation of Plaintiff
In the instant case, the ALJ resolved Plaintiff’s claim at step five of the five-step process.
The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the first two steps but determined at step three that Plaintiff was
not presumptively disabled, because he 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. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to
perform past relevant work. At step five the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform work as a
cafeteria attendant, cleaner, housekeeper, and photocopy machine operator, and thus concluded
that Plaintiff has not been under a disability since the alleged onset date of October 17, 2011. AR
D. Plaintiff’s Assertion of Error
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by improperly evaluating his credibility. DE 18 at 13.
Plaintiff therefore requests that this case be reversed and benefits awarded, or, alternatively,
remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further consideration. Id. at 17.
Sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) states the following:
The court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the
record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a
42 U.S.C. § 405(g), 1383(c)(3). “In cases where there is an adequate record, the
[Commissioner’s] decision denying benefits can be reversed and benefits awarded if the decision
is clearly erroneous, proof of disability is overwhelming, or proof of disability is strong and
evidence to the contrary is lacking.” Mowery v. Heckler, 771 F.2d 966, 973 (6th Cir. 1985).
Furthermore, a court can reverse the decision and immediately award benefits if all essential
factual issues have been resolved and the record adequately establishes a claimant’s entitlement
to benefits. Faucher v. Secretary, 17 F.3d 171, 176 (6th Cir. 1994). See also Newkirk v. Shalala,
25 F.3d 316, 318 (1994). The court will address Plaintiff’s single assertion of error below.
The ALJ’s credibility determination is entitled to “great weight and deference.” Tilley v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 394 F. App’x 216, 223 (6th Cir. 2010) (quoting Jones, 336 F.3d at 476).
The Sixth Circuit has gone so far as to state that the ALJ’s credibility determination is “virtually
‘unchallengeable.’” Ritchie v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 540 F. App’x 508, 511 (6th Cir 2013)
(internal citation omitted). When evaluating subjective complaints, the ALJ must look to see if
the claimant has a medical impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the pain
alleged by the claimant and consider all other evidence that would lead to a finding of disability.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(a).
The ALJ in the instant matter determined that Plaintiff’s allegations of disabling pain
were not entirely credible. AR 24. Plaintiff argues that this determination is not supported by
substantial evidence because there is objective evidence of an underlying medical condition in
the record, which primarily involves a cervical injury sustained following a motorcycle accident
in October of 2011, and evidence that Plaintiff received treatment for this and other conditions
that failed to resolve his symptoms. DE 18 at 15-16.
It is true that Plaintiff suffers from multiple severe impairments, as identified by the ALJ.
AR 19. However, there is ample evidence in the record to support the ALJ’s conclusion that such
impairments do not represent disabling conditions. Plaintiff testified that his primary physical
issue is the spinal condition caused by the 2011 motorcycle wreck. AR 44-45. While Plaintiff
suffered a cervical fracture following this accident, imaging studies performed almost one year
later revealed minimal findings in the cervical spine and no bone abnormalities, thus suggesting
that Plaintiff’s post-injury surgery resolved his symptoms. AR 418. The ALJ further noted that,
despite Plaintiff’s testimony that he has severe problems with walking and standing, Plaintiff
demonstrated a normal gait and station and had negative straight leg raise examinations in both
lower extremities during an encounter with Dr. William Schooley more than seven months after
the accident, as well as a full range of motion in his neck, back, and lower extremities. AR 35253.
The ALJ also highlighted the minimal findings from Plaintiff’s consultative examination
with Dr. Donita Keown, which revealed significant flexibility in his spine, negative straight leg
raise tests, and a normal straightaway walk, tandem step, toe lift, heel walk, and one-foot stand.
AR 22-23, 289. Such negative findings were properly considered by the ALJ. See Tripp v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., No. 1:08-cv-669, 2009 WL 3064726, at *7 (W.D. Mich. Sept. 21, 2009)
(“A report of negative findings from the application of medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory diagnostic techniques is one of the many factors that appropriately are considered in
the overall assessment of credibility.”) (quoting Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-7p).3 The
ALJ further noted that Plaintiff was “uncooperative” during the consultative examination with
Dr. Keown, which included a failure to participate in many of the exercises administered by Dr.
Keown. AR 24, 289. Plaintiff’s obstinacy in this regard provides further support for the ALJ’s
credibility determination. See Tuttle v. Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 2:13-0045, 2016 WL 3039651, at
*4 (M.D. Tenn. Apr. 29, 2016), report and recommendation adopted sub nom. 2016 WL
3031608 (M.D. Tenn. May 27, 2016) (holding that substantial evidence supported an ALJ’s
SSR 96-7p has been superseded by SSR 16-3p, which became effective on March 28, 2016.
However, because Plaintiff’s complaint was filed in August of 2015, SSR 96-7p applies to the
undersigned’s analysis of this claim. See Cameron v. Colvin, No. 1:15-cv-169, 2016 WL 4094884, at *2
(E.D. Tenn. Aug. 2, 2016) (“It is well-established that, absent explicit language to the contrary,
administrative rules do not apply retroactively.”) (internal citation omitted).
decision to discount a claimant’s credibility based in part on his failure to cooperate with a
consultative physical examination).
Additionally, and crucially, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff provided inconsistent testimony
and has repeatedly exhibited behavior that significantly undermines his credibility. During his
hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff testified that he had never ingested any drugs other than those
prescribed to him by his physicians. AR 47, 51. Plaintiff also testified that he had not consumed
alcohol since the motorcycle accident in 2011. AR 51. Yet an office note from the Pain
Management Group in October of 2012 documents an “abnormal” drug screen and a “recent
episode of stolen medications,” as well as Plaintiff’s continued efforts to combine opioids with
alcohol consumption, all of which led to the Pain Management Group’s decision to discontinue
Plaintiff’s pain management program. AR 408. Notably, Plaintiff also testified during his hearing
that he had recently been incarcerated for “public intoxication” (AR 50), which demonstrates that
Plaintiff continued to use alcohol well into 2013.
A prior Pain Management Group note from September of 2012 also states that Plaintiff
“has a history of abnormal [drug] screening, abnormal prescription database checks, and/or
aberrant behavior.” AR 411. Such evidence strongly refutes Plaintiff’s testimony that he “passed
every drug test they gave me” (AR 51) and bolsters the ALJ’s decision to discount Plaintiff’s
credibility, as drug-seeking behavior “can form a basis for rejecting a claimant’s testimony
regarding pain and limitations.” Jackson v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., No. 1:14-cv-628, 2015 WL
4611472, at *7 (W.D. Mich. July 31, 2015) (internal citations omitted). See also Jones, 336 F.3d
469, 476-77 (finding that the ALJ’s credibility determination was reasonably based on the
claimant’s inconsistent hearing testimony).
Plaintiff’s brief addresses none of this evidence, but instead perfunctorily references the
treatment he received from various providers. DE 18 at 15-16. This recitation of treatment fails
to overcome the significant evidence discussed by the ALJ in support of her decision to discount
Plaintiff’s credibility. The court therefore rejects this assertion of error and concludes that
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination.
For the above stated reasons, Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment on the Administrative
Record (DE 17) will be denied. An appropriate Order will accompany this memorandum.
ALETA A. TRAUGER
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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