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Alexander v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 24, 2018


          Honorable Thomas L. Ludington, Judge



         Plaintiff Nadia Alexander 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:

• Alexander's motion [ECF No. 15] be DENIED;
• the Commissioner's motion [ECF No. 18] be GRANTED; and
• the Commissioner's decision be AFFIRMED pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Background and Disability Applications

         Alexander was born on March 14, 1981, making her 32 years old on her alleged onset date of January 15, 2014. [ECF No. 11-5, Tr. 164]. She has completed schooling through the 7th grade and has prior work history as a fast food worker and assistant fast food manager. [ECF No. 11-2, Tr. 24; ECF No. 11-6, Tr. 191]. Alexander alleged disability due to a ruptured disc; severe pain in the neck, back, and arm; high blood pressure; and major depressive disorder. [ECF No. 11-6, Tr. 190].

         After the Commissioner denied her disability application initially, Alexander requested a hearing, which took place in November 2015; she and a vocational expert (VE) testified. [ECF No. 11-2, Tr. 30-63]. In a November 25, 2015, written decision, the ALJ found Alexander to be not disabled. [Id., Tr. 11-25]. The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, and Alexander 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 Alexander was not disabled. At the first step, he found that Alexander had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. [ECF No. 11-2, Tr. 13]. At the second step, the ALJ found that Alexander had the severe impairments of “degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and cervical spine, major depressive disorder, intention tremors, and obesity.” [Id.]. Next, the ALJ concluded that none of her impairments, either alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. [Id., Tr. 14-16].

         Between the third and fourth steps, the ALJ found that Alexander had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a), except that:

[She] is limited to simple, routine, repetitive work at an SVP of 1 or 2; occasional contact with supervisors, coworkers, and the public; avoid unprotected heights and operation of a motor vehicle; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can lift/carry 10 pounds frequently and 15 pounds occasionally; can stand/walk with normal breaks for a total of 2 hours in an 8-hour workday; can sit with normal breaks for a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; and ...

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