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Smith v. Berryhill

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

November 20, 2017


          Honorable George Caram Steeh


          ELIZABETH A. STAFFORD United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Valerie Smith appeals a final decision of defendant Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under the Social Security Act. Both parties have filed summary judgment motions, referred to this Court for a report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). After review of the record, the Court finds that the administrative law judge's (ALJ) decision is supported by substantial evidence, and thus RECOMMENDS that:

. Smith's motion [ECF No. 10] be DENIED;
. the Commissioner's motion [ECF No. 11] be GRANTED; and
. the Commissioner's decision be AFFIRMED pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Smith's Background and Disability Applications

         Smith was born on July 27, 1966, making her 46 years old on her alleged onset date of May 18, 2013. [ECF No. 8-5, Tr. 162]. She applied for disability benefits in December 2013 and is insured for DIB purposes through December 31, 2018. [Id.; ECF No. 8-2, Tr. 19]. Smith has at least a high school education, and past relevant work as an office assistant and office manager. [ECF No. 8-2, Tr. 24-25]. She alleged disability due to mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, anxiety, paranoia and suicidal ideation. [ECF No. 8-6, Tr. 194].

         After the Commissioner denied her disability application initially, Smith requested a hearing, which took place in July 2015, during which she and a vocational expert (VE) testified. [ECF No. 8-2, Tr. 34-88]. In a January 28, 2016, written decision, the ALJ found Smith to be not disabled. [Id., Tr. 26]. The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, and Smith timely filed for judicial review. [Id., Tr. 1-3; ECF No. 1].

         B. The ALJ's Application of the Disability Framework Analysis

         DIB is available for those who have a “disability.” See Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). A “disability” is 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Commissioner determines whether an applicant is disabled by analyzing five sequential steps. First, if the applicant is “doing substantial gainful activity, ” he or she will be found not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). Second, if the claimant has not had a severe impairment or a combination of such impairments[1] for a continuous period of at least 12 months, no disability will be found. Id. Third, if the claimant's severe impairments meet or equal the criteria of an impairment set forth in the Commissioner's Listing of Impairments, the claimant will be found disabled. Id. If the fourth step is reached, the Commissioner considers its assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity, and will find the claimant not disabled if he or she can still do past relevant work. Id. At the final step, the Commissioner reviews the claimant's RFC, age, education and work experiences, and determines whether the claimant could adjust to other work. Id. The claimant bears the burden of proof throughout the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner if the fifth step is reached. Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).

         Applying this framework, the ALJ concluded that Smith was not disabled. At the first step, he found that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. [ECF No. 8-2, Tr. 19]. At the second step, the ALJ found that Smith had the severe impairments of depression with anxiety. [Id.]. Next, the ALJ concluded that none of the impairments, either alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. [Id., Tr. 20-21].

         Between the third and fourth steps, the ALJ found that Smith had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with nonexertional limitations:

[T]he claimant needs to avoid hazards including work at unprotected heights and work around dangerous moving machinery. She must not climb ladders, scaffolds, and ropes and must not drive in the course of employment. The claimant has the ability for, but is restricted to unskilled work, meaning [she] needs work that requires little or no judgment to do simple duties that can be learned on the job in a short period of time. She must not work with the general public or have more than occasional contact with ...

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