Kentucky Court Affirms Social Security Administration’s Benefits Decision

Plaintiff Raymond Groves sought judicial review of a final decision made by Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, through an administrative law judge (ALJ) regarding whether he was “disabled” under federal law. The plaintiff-appellant took issue with several findings in the ALJ’s September 2018 order. In the instant, Nov. 6 order, the Western District of Kentucky affirmed the findings of the ALJ over the plaintiff’s objections.

The case originated when Groves filed for disability insurance benefits in 2016 alleging that he became disabled in November 2015, as a result of a number of ailments. These included the presence and removal of non-cancerous brain tumors, one of which required surgery that resulted in the loss of hearing in one ear, difficulty breathing which may be caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, Von Recklinghausen’s disease, and headaches.

According to the order, the ALJ reviewed the application for adult disability under a “five-step sequential evaluation process promulgated by the Commissioner,” and concluded that the plaintiff did not have a disability as defined within the Social Security Act. The plaintiff appealed to the intermediate Appeals Council, which denied review, then to federal court.

The court considered whether the ALJ’s challenged findings were supported by “substantial evidence.” The first it dealt with was whether the plaintiff’s proffered “new” evidence should be submitted to the ALJ for post-decision review. The new evidence, a doctor’s note from December 2018, demonstrated that Groves had a total knee replacement, the plaintiff contended.

The court sided with the defendant, who argued that the note is “not ‘material’ because, other than indicating Plaintiff was a candidate for a left knee replacement, it contains evidence that is cumulative of the objective and subjective evidence in the record that was fully considered by the ALJ.” The court further explained that “[c]ontrary to Plaintiff’s assertion, the new medical evidence does not show he received a total knee replacement… the Court cannot ascertain from this new evidence whether Plaintiff has undergone a total knee replacement and, if so, when the surgery occurred.”

The plaintiff also appealed the ALJ’s finding regarding his residual functional capacity (RFC), which considers whether a disability applicant’s “age, education, and past work experience allow him or her to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy.” The plaintiff and defendant quibbled over whether the treating physician’s opinion had been given due consideration. The court held that it had.

It explained that “the ALJ articulated substantial evidence in the record that supported his finding the Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work with certain exertional, postural, and environmental limitations.” Further, the court held that the ALJ unearthed medical evidence and testimony contradicting the plaintiff’s own regarding his pain levels and exhibition of other symptoms at the hearing.

Finally, the plaintiff argued that the ALJ erred in determining that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he can perform.” The court explained that at this step of the inquiry, “the Commissioner has the burden of demonstrating a significant number of jobs exist in the local, regional and national economies that the claimant can perform, given his or her residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience.”

The judge ruled that the standard had been met because the case’s vocational expert identified a significant number of jobs that the plaintiff could perform. Thus, the court affirmed the final decision of the Commissioner and granted judgment in his favor.

The plaintiff is represented by Rhoads & Rhoads, PSC, and the Commissioner by the United States Department of Justice and the United States Attorney Office – Louisville, Kentucky.