Petty v. Commissioner of Social Security
ORDER AFFIRMING THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER. Signed by Judge S. Thomas Anderson on 1/30/2017. (Anderson, S.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
Case No: 1:14-cv-01066-STA-dkv
ORDER AFFIRMING THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER
Plaintiff Joyce Petty filed this action to obtain judicial review of Defendant
Commissioner’s final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits under
Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”). Plaintiff’s application was denied initially and upon
reconsideration by the Social Security Administration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before
an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which was held on August 7, 2012. On September 26,
2012, the ALJ denied the claim. The Appeals Council subsequently denied her request for
review. Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the Commissioner’s final decision. For the
reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a claimant may obtain judicial review of any final decision
made by the Commissioner after a hearing to which he was a party. “The court shall have the
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 rehearing.”1 The court’s review is limited to determining whether there is substantial
evidence to support the Commissioner’s decision,2 and whether the correct legal standards were
Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.”4 It is “more than a mere scintilla of evidence, but less than a
preponderance.”5 The Commissioner, not the Court, is charged with the duty to weigh the
evidence, to make credibility determinations and resolve material conflicts in the testimony, and
to decide the case accordingly.6
When substantial evidence supports the Commissioner’s
determination, it is conclusive, even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite
Plaintiff was born on August 24, 1957 and was fifty-three years old at the time of the
filing of her application for benefits on May 23, 2011.8 She alleges disability due to torn
ligaments in both knees, diabetes, depression, heart problems, high blood pressure, deteriorated
42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997). See also Landsaw v. Sec’y of Health &
Human Servs, 803 F.2d 211, 213 (6th Cir. 1986).
Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 772 (6th Cir. 2001) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
Bell v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 105 F.3d 244, 245 (6th Cir. 1996) (citing Consolidated Edison Co.
v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).
Walters v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997); Crum v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d
642, 644 (6th Cir. 1990); Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984).
Warner v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004).
(R. 108-1112, ECF No. 7.)
disc in neck, high cholesterol, ulcers, migraines, and arthritis in her knees beginning April 1,
2001.9 Plaintiff has a GED and previous work experience as a hospital sterilizer.10
The ALJ made the following findings: (1) Plaintiff met the insured status requirements
through September 30, 2007; (2) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the
alleged onset date; (3) Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis of the knees
and status post repair of torn meniscus, diabetes, obesity, and depression; but she does not have
impairments, either alone or in combination, that meet or equal the requirements of any listed
impairment contained in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 of the listing of impairments; (4)
Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work as defined in 20
C.F.R § 404.1567(b); Plaintiff can frequently utilize her right lower extremity for pushing and
pulling, and frequently kneel, crawl, and climb stairs and ramps, but she can never climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds; regarding her mental impairment, Plaintiff can tolerate frequent exposure to
the general public; and sustain concentration, attention, persistence, and pace in two-hour
segments with customary breaks; (5) Plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as a
sterilizer; (6) Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Act at any time through the
date of this decision.11
(Id. at 108, 127.) To be entitled to disability benefits under Title II, Plaintiff has the burden to
show that she was disabled prior to the expiration of her insured status. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.130;
Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1182 (6th Cir. 1990). Thus, the relevant time period for
consideration in this case is from April 1, 2001, through September 30, 2007, the date her
insured status expired.
(Id. at 18.)
(Id. at 12-19.)
The Social Security Act defines disability as the inability to engage in substantial gainful
activity.12 The claimant bears the ultimate burden of establishing an entitlement to benefits.13
The initial burden of going forward is on the claimant to show that she is disabled from engaging
in her former employment; the burden of going forward then shifts to the Commissioner to
demonstrate the existence of available employment compatible with the claimant’s disability and
The Commissioner conducts the following, five-step analysis to determine if an
individual is disabled within the meaning of the Act:
1. An individual who is engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found to be
disabled regardless of medical findings.
2. An individual who does not have a severe impairment will not be found to be disabled.
3. A finding of disability will be made without consideration of vocational factors, if an
individual is not working and is suffering from a severe impairment which meets the duration
requirement and which meets or equals a listed impairment in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the
4. An individual who can perform work that he has done in the past will not be found to
5. If an individual cannot perform his or her past work, other factors including age,
education, past work experience and residual functional capacity must be considered to
determine if other work can be performed.15
Further review is not necessary if it is determined that an individual is not disabled at
any point in this sequential analysis.16 Here, the sequential analysis proceeded to the fourth step
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1).
Born v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs, 923 F.2d 1168, 1173 (6th Cir. 1990).
Willbanks v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs, 847 F.2d 301 (6th Cir. 1988).
with a finding that Plaintiff can perform her past relevant work. The Court finds that substantial
evidence supports this determination.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to cite evidence to support the residual functional
capacity finding. In support of her argument, she cites her own testimony at the administrative
hearing and her medical records which document periodic treatment. Plaintiff’s arguments are
As noted above, the initial burden of going forward is on Plaintiff to show that she is
disabled from engaging in her former employment; once she makes that showing, the burden of
going forward shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate the existence of available employment
compatible with the claimant’s disability and background.17 Accordingly, it is Plaintiff’s burden
to prove that she has disabling limitations, not the ALJ’s.18
The mere fact that Plaintiff has a diagnosis or diagnoses does not mean that she has
disabling limitations. It is well settled that a diagnosis, in and of itself, “says nothing about the
severity of the condition.”19 Instead, the ALJ must consider the actual work-related impact of
Much of the record in this case concerns treatment dated after the expiration of Plaintiff’s
insured status and deals with problems like shoulder pain that were not an issue during the
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a).
Born, 923 F.2d at 1173.
See Watters v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 530 F. App’x 419, 425 (6th Cir. 2013) (citations
omitted) (“[T]his court has consistently affirmed that the claimant bears the burden of producing
sufficient evidence to show the existence of a disability.”)
Higgs v. Bowen, 880 F.2d 860, 863 (6th Cir. 1988) (citing Foster v. Bowen, 853 F.2d 483, 489
(6th Cir. 1988) (a diagnosable impairment is not necessarily disabling)).
relevant period. Evidence generated after the expiration of insured status and which does not
relate to the claimant’s condition on the date last insured is not relevant.20 Other records in
Plaintiff’s medical file are not relevant because they are dated prior to her alleged onset date.
The records that are from the relevant time period do not support Plaintiff’s subjective
A claimant’s credibility comes into question when her “complaints regarding
symptoms, or their intensity and persistence, are not supported by objective medical evidence.21
“To assess credibility, the ALJ must consider “the entire case record,” including “any medical
signs and lab findings, the claimant’s own complaints of symptoms, any information provided by
the treating physicians and others, as well as any other relevant evidence contained in the
record.”22 This Court is required to “accord the ALJ’s determinations of credibility great weight
and deference particularly since the ALJ has the opportunity, which we do not, of observing a
witness’s demeanor while testifying.”23 However, the ALJ’s credibility finding “must find
support in the record.”24
Here, the Court finds no error in the ALJ’s credibility determination because Plaintiff did
not provide objective medical evidence to establish the intensity and persistence of her alleged
symptoms, and the record as a whole does not indicate that her condition was of disabling
Although Plaintiff presented objective medical evidence of underlying medical
See Strong v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 88 F. App’x 841, 845 (6th Cir. 2004) (“Evidence of
disability obtained after the expiration of insured status is generally of little probative value.”).
Rogers v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 247 (6th Cir. 2007).
Jones v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 476 (6th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted).
conditions, i.e., osteoarthritis of the knees and status post repair of torn meniscus, diabetes,
obesity, and depression, and the ALJ found that these impairments could reasonably cause the
kind of limitations as alleged by Plaintiff, the ALJ also found that Plaintiff’s statements about the
intensity, persistence, and limiting effect of her alleged symptoms were not entirely credible
because they were inconsistent with the evidence of record.25
First, the ALJ noted that the objective medical evidence did not support Plaintiff’s
claims. The ALJ acknowledged that there was some evidence that Plaintiff limped with an
antalgic gait; however, other evidence showed that she retained normal muscle power, normal
muscle tone and reflexes, intact neurological examination, and little swelling.26
endocrinologist reported that she had normal extremities and joints, a normal neurological
examination, and that she did not have any swelling.27 In 2005 x-rays showed that Plaintiff had
“some medial collapse” in the knee, but clinical reports showed that she retained normal range of
motion and had a normal neurological examination.28
Plaintiff sought infrequent, conservative treatment for her knees, and treatment was
helpful. Plaintiff had injections for knee pain, and she told her doctor that she was “very
pleased” with the results.29 She did not report for further injections until several years after the
See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c) (stating that an ALJ is required to
analyze the intensity and persistence of the claimant’s symptoms if there is objective evidence of
a medical condition that could reasonably cause the alleged impairments).
(R. 16, ECF No. 7.)
(Id. at 16, 187, 194.)
(Id. at 17, 583.)
end of the relevant period.30 Records from the Eze Clinic show that Plaintiff was still “doing
well” at the end of 2007, just a few months after the end of the relevant period.31 A 2010
medical report characterized her arthritis as “moderate,” not severe.32 Several years after the
expiration of her insured status, Plaintiff was instructed to use Tylenol and anti-inflammatories,
not narcotics, indicating a non-disabling level of pain.33 Disability is not supported when an
individual’s impairments improve with medication.34
Plaintiff received little other treatment for knee pain. Plaintiff’s failure to seek treatment
for long intervals is inconsistent with her allegations of disabling symptoms.
inconsistencies impugn Plaintiff’s credibility, as the ALJ properly found.35
Additionally, none of Plaintiff’s doctors told her to limit her standing or walking during
the relevant period or issued any opinion suggesting limitations inconsistent with the residual
functional capacity finding.36 Finally, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff’s demeanor at the hearing did
(Id. at 581-82.)
(Id. at 16, 277.)
(Id. at 578.)
(Id. at 578.)
See also Smith v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 2014 WL 1663028 (6th Cir. April 25, 2014) (citation
omitted) (evidence that medical issues can be improved when using prescribed drugs supports
denial of disability benefits). See also Branon v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 539 F. App’x 675, 678
(6th Cir. 2013) (finding a condition non-disabling when the claimant relied on over-the-counter
See Stroud v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 504 F. App’x. 458 (6th Cir. 2012) (citing Jones, 336 F.3d
at 476–77 (holding that an ALJ’s credibility determination was reasonably based on the
claimant’s inconsistent testimony)).
See Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 510 (6th Cir. 2007) (finding it proper to consider that a
physician “made no diagnosis and gave no medical opinion regarding plaintiff’s ability to
ambulate or his gait.”).
not suggest disabling limitations.37 Thus, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s residual
functional capacity finding.
At step four of the sequential analysis, the ALJ compares the claimant’s residual
functional capacity with the requirements of the claimant’s past work.38 Past relevant work is,
generally, a job that was performed within the last fifteen years, performed long enough to learn
how to perform the job, and was substantial gainful activity.39 If the past job did not require the
claimant to perform activities in excess of the claimant’s residual functional capacity, the
claimant will be found not disabled.40 A claimant must prove that she is unable to return to her
past relevant work either as she performed that work or as that work is generally performed in
the national economy.41 Plaintiff has failed to carry her burden of proof.
The ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a sterilizer and,
therefore, was not disabled. Plaintiff held this position from 1996 to 2001.42 She worked long
enough to learn the essential functions of the job, and she performed the work at the substantial
gainful activity level. In comparing Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity with the physical and
mental demands of such work and based on the testimony of a vocational expert that, given
Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity and work history, Plaintiff could perform work as a
See Walters v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 531 (6th Cir. 1997) (stating that ALJ
credibility findings are due “great weight and deference, particularly since an ALJ is charged
with the duty of observing a witness’s demeanor and credibility”).
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1560(b).
20 C.F.R. § 404.1565(a).
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1560(b), 404.1561.
Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).
(R. 18, ECF No 7.)
sterilizer as it is generally performed, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff would not be precluded
from performing this past work.43 Accordingly, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding
that Plaintiff is not disabled.
Because substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination that Plaintiff was not
disabled, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
s/ S. Thomas Anderson
S. THOMAS ANDERSON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Date: January 30, 2017.
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