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Austin v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division

June 20, 2017

TRESA EVELYN AUSTIN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          RAY KENT United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB).

         Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of September 24, 2012. PageID.187. Plaintiff identified her disabling conditions as: ulcerative colitis; fibromyalgia; degenerative arthritis in lower back and both hips; bone spurs in both feet; nerve damage in left shoulder; and “lots of pain in legs and back.” PageID.191. She completed a GED and had past employment as the night manager of a gas station, a cashier, a school bus driver, and an environmentalist in a hospital (housekeeper in the decontamination area). PageID.192, 252. The administrative law judge (ALJ) reviewed plaintiff's claim de novo and entered a written decision denying benefits on July 31, 2015. PageID.58-68. This decision, which was later approved by the Appeals Council, has become the final decision of the Commissioner and is now before the Court for review.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         This court's review of the Commissioner's decision is typically focused on determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); McKnight v. Sullivan, 927 F.2d 241 (6th Cir. 1990). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Cutlip v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). A determination of substantiality of the evidence must be based upon the record taken as a whole. Young v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 925 F.2d 146 (6th Cir. 1990).

         The scope of this review is limited to an examination of the record only. This Court does not review the evidence de novo, make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Brainard v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 1989). The fact that the record also contains evidence which would have supported a different conclusion does not undermine the Commissioner's decision so long as there is substantial support for that decision in the record. Willbanks v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 847 F.2d 301, 303 (6th Cir. 1988). Even if the reviewing court would resolve the dispute differently, the Commissioner's decision must stand if it is supported by substantial evidence. Young, 925 F.2d at 147.

         A claimant must prove that he suffers from a disability in order to be entitled to benefits. A disability is established by showing that the claimant cannot engage in 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 twelve months. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505; Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990). In applying the above standard, the Commissioner has developed a five-step analysis:

The Social Security Act requires the Secretary to follow a “five-step sequential process” for claims of disability. First, plaintiff must demonstrate that she is not currently engaged in “substantial gainful activity” at the time she seeks disability benefits. Second, plaintiff must show that she suffers from a “severe impairment” in order to warrant a finding of disability. A “severe impairment” is one which “significantly limits . . . physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Third, if plaintiff is not performing substantial gainful activity, has a severe impairment that is expected to last for at least twelve months, and the impairment meets a listed impairment, plaintiff is presumed to be disabled regardless of age, education or work experience. Fourth, if the plaintiff's impairment does not prevent her from doing her past relevant work, plaintiff is not disabled. For the fifth and final step, even if the plaintiff's impairment does prevent her from doing her past relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, plaintiff is not disabled.

Heston v. Commissioner of Social Security, 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted).

         The claimant bears the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by her impairments and the fact that she is precluded from performing her past relevant work through step four. Jones v. Commissioner of Social Security, 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). However, at step five of the inquiry, “the burden shifts to the Commissioner to identify a significant number of jobs in the economy that accommodate the claimant's residual functional capacity (determined at step four) and vocational profile.” Id. If it is determined that a claimant is or is not disabled at any point in the evaluation process, further review is not necessary. Mullis v. Bowen, 861 F.2d 991, 993 (6th Cir. 1988).

         II. ALJ'S DECISION

         Plaintiff's claim failed at the fourth step of the evaluation. At the first step, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of September 24, 2012, and meets the insured status requirements of the Act through June 30, 2017. PageID.60. At the second step, the ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of: calcaneal bone spurs on bilateral feet; cervical and lumbar degenerative disk disease; osteoarthritis; Crohn's Disease; and obesity. PageID.60. At the third step, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the requirements of the Listing of Impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. PageID.61.

         The ALJ decided at the fourth step that:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) where the claimant can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally, and 10 pounds frequently, can sit up to eight hours of an eight-hour workday, and can stand and/or walk up to eight hours of an eight-hour workday. The claimant does not require an assistive device for ambulation. The claimant has no reaching or manipulative limitations. The claimant has no limitations of the bilateral lower extremities for the operation of foot controls. The claimant has no postural limitations or environmental limitations. The claimant could be exposed to a noise level of a moderate level (SCO level 3) equal to an office environment.

         PageID.62. The ALJ also found that plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a cashier, which is unskilled, light work which does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC). PageID.66.

         In the alternative, the ALJ proceeded to step five, where he determined that plaintiff could perform a significant number of unskilled, light exertional jobs in the national economy. PageID.66-67. Specifically, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform the following unskilled, light work in national economy such as marker-retail (200, 000 jobs), photo copy machine operator (50, 000 jobs), and cafeteria attendant (100, 000 jobs). PageID.67. The ALJ's findings are based upon the vocational expert's responses to interrogatories. PageID.253-254. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from September 24, 2012 (the alleged disability onset date) through July 31, 2015 (the date of the decision). PageID.68.

         III. ...


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