Moats v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 21-3702

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtCHAD A. READLER, Circuit Judge.
PartiesTodd Allen Moats, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant-Appellee.
Docket Number21-3702
Decision Date27 July 2022

Todd Allen Moats, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.

Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 21-3702

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

July 27, 2022


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio at Toledo. No. 3:20-cv-00265-Jeffrey James Helmick, District Judge.

COUNSEL

ON BRIEF:

Randal S. Forbes, FORBES RODMAN PC, Angola, Indiana, for Appellant.

Alison Schwartz, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Chicago, Illinois, for Appellee.

Before: SUTTON, Chief Judge; KETHLEDGE and READLER, Circuit Judges.

READLER, J., delivered the opinion of the court in which SUTTON, C.J. and KETHLEDGE, J., joined. READLER, J. (pp. 10-14), also delivered a separate concurring opinion.

OPINION

CHAD A. READLER, Circuit Judge.

Todd Moats suffers from peripheral neuropathy, which prevents him from wearing closed-toed shoes for lengthy periods. This condition caused Moats to leave his job as a forklift operator and apply for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income through the Social Security Administration. Following a hearing,

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an administrative law judge found that Moats's condition prevented him from returning to his previous job. Nonetheless, because, as the ALJ found, Moats could still perform a number of jobs available throughout the national economy, his application for benefits was denied. As substantial evidence supports that determination, we affirm. In so doing, we reject Moats's argument that the ALJ failed to adequately develop the record.

BACKGROUND

Todd Moats worked as a forklift operator at the Campbell Soup Company. He eventually left that position due to pain and excessive sweating in his feet when he wore closed-toed shoes. A few months later, he applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income through the Social Security Administration. In his application, Moats alleged that he was disabled due to his neuropathy as well as a host of other conditions, including diabetes, fatigue, and a learning disability. The agency denied Moats's application and subsequent request for reconsideration.

Moats requested a hearing before an ALJ. The agency notified Moats by letter that he was allowed representation at the hearing and provided a list of legal aid organizations. In its letter, the agency also detailed the process for submitting evidence, indicating that Moats could testify and put on witnesses at the hearing. Finally, the agency explained what factors the ALJ would consider when determining Moats's eligibility for disability benefits.

Disability benefits hearings before the Social Security Administration, it bears noting, are considered adjudicative, not adversarial, in nature. Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1152 (2019)). A claimant has the right to designate a person to represent him during the hearing. 42 U.S.C. § 406; 20 C.F.R. § 404.938(b)(2). The Social Security Administration, on the other hand, has no representative before the ALJ. Carr v. Saul, 141 S.Ct. 1352, 1359 (2021). Together, the ALJ and the claimant-here Moats-consider the claimant's request for benefits through an "informal" process "examining (among other things) the kind and number of jobs available for someone with the applicant's disability and other characteristics." Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 115152.

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On the day of Moats's hearing, he arrived without legal counsel. The ALJ emphasized to Moats the benefits of representation and offered to postpone the hearing if Moats desired more time to secure a representative. But Moats declined, indicating that he did not "[n]eed a lawyer" and was "doing this [him]self."

So the hearing progressed to the evidentiary phase. The ALJ began by reviewing the case file with Moats. Moats indicated that he had received additional treatment since the file was last updated and provided copies of the relevant treating physician records. The ALJ explained the process for evaluating disability claims; Moats had no questions. Moats then described his living situation (house), age (38), marital situation (married with no children), educational attainment (high school graduate), driving ability (licensed and drives roughly once each week), and ability to perform household tasks (capable of completing typical household chores). Next, Moats explained that, although he has some trouble spelling "big words," he can read the newspaper and do basic math. He also discussed his employment history. In response to a question from a vocational expert, Moats indicated that he "probably could" perform a job that allowed him to remain seated without shoes all day.

Following Moats's testimony, the ALJ heard from two witnesses. One was Moats's wife. She confirmed that Moats could not wear closed-toed shoes for long periods and provided additional details about medical treatment he had received. The other was a vocational expert. His testimony's overriding purpose was to contrast Moats's previous jobs with other positions available in the national economy. The ALJ asked the expert if someone with Moats's background could find gainful employment in a position that did not require closed-toed shoes and involved only sedentary work with occasional movement up ramps or stairs. The expert testified that roughly 32,000 jobs of that ilk were available in the national economy. Examples included positions as a general office clerk, an addresser, and a surveillance monitor.

From this record, the ALJ determined that although Moats suffered from impairments that prevented him from returning to his forklift position, his residual functional capacity was sufficient to perform many other jobs in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Moats does not suffer from a "disability," as that term is used in the Social Security Act, and denied his request for benefits. Moats sought review of the ALJ's decision in the district court.

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That court sided with the Social Security Administration, concluding that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's determination. This appeal followed.

ANALYSIS

We review a district court's decision regarding benefits eligibility de novo. Gentry v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 741 F.3d 708, 722 (6th Cir. 2014). This means that we, like the district court, will uphold the ALJ's decision unless the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal standard or made findings that are unsupported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006). "'[S]ubstantial evidence' is a 'term of art'" in this setting. Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1154 (citation omitted). And it is "not [a] high" threshold. Id. While it requires "more than a mere scintilla" of evidence, substantial evidence "means only . . . 'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Id. (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).

Eligibility for benefits payments under Section 223 of the Social Security Act depends on the existence of a "disability." 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). A disability, in turn, is defined as the "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." Id. § 423(d)(1)(A). Not every impairment, in other words, will satisfy this definition. Rather, the impairment must be "of such severity that [the claimant] is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Id. § 423(d)(2)(A). Gainful work "exists in the national economy" if it "exists in significant numbers." Id.

1. Moats challenges the ALJ's finding that, despite Moats's impairments, he could perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. Critical to the ALJ's conclusion was the vocational expert's testimony indicating that Moats could work in a number of positions (for example, as a general office clerk, addresser, or surveillance monitor) that together comprise approximately 32,000 jobs nationwide.

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How should a factfinder go about valuing a vocational expert's testimony? We can derive the answer in part from the Supreme Court's Biestek decision. Vocational experts, Biestek explained, are "professionals under contract with [the Social Security Administration] to provide impartial testimony in agency proceedings." 139 S.Ct. at 1152. The experts provide "current knowledge" about the nature and availability of various jobs based on publicly available data as well as the experts' own experience in job placement or career counseling. Id. at 1152-53 (citation omitted). ALJs will often rely on vocational experts to determine what kind of work (if any) a claimant could perform. See id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566(e), 416.966(e). And, as Biestek suggests, when a qualified vocational expert testifies that a person with the claimant's work experience and physical limitations could perform a significant number of jobs available in the national economy, the ALJ has a solid basis for denying disability benefits. See Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1155-57 (holding that a vocational expert's testimony identifying a significant number of sedentary jobs the claimant could perform was substantial evidence supporting the denial of benefits); see also Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 549 (6th Cir. 2004); Smith v. Halter, 307 F.3d 377, 378 (6th Cir. 2001). Especially so, we note, when the vocational expert is well-credentialed and "has a history of giving sound testimony about job availability in similar cases." Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1155.

With this backdrop in mind, we agree that the vocational expert's testimony at Moats's hearing amounted to...

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