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Castle v. Astrue

January 3, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Leon Jordan United States District Judge


This is an action for judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of defendant Commissioner's final decision denying plaintiff's claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. For the reasons set forth herein, defendant's motion for summary judgment [doc. 18] will be granted, and plaintiff's motion for summary judgment [doc. 14] will be denied. The final decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.

I. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed his present application in May 2003, claiming to be disabled by "[r]ight knee trouble, very nervous, back problems," and impaired memory. [Tr. 56, 92]. He alleged an onset date of May 8, 2003. [Tr. 605]. The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration.*fn1 Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which took place before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on June 6, 2005.

On July 28, 2005, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. He concluded that plaintiff suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD") and "a disorder of the right knee," which are "severe" impairments but not equal, individually or in concert, to any impairment listed by the Commissioner. [Tr. 20]. The ALJ found plaintiff to have a residual functional capacity ("RFC") at the light level of exertion if not exposed "to dust and respiratory irritants." [Tr. 20]. Relying on vocational expert testimony, the ALJ determined that plaintiff remains able to perform a significant number of jobs existing in the regional and national economies at both the light and sedentary levels. [Tr. 23]. Plaintiff was therefore found ineligible for SSI benefits.

Plaintiff then sought review from the Commissioner's Appeals Council. On December 1, 2006, review was denied, notwithstanding plaintiff's submission of almost 60 pages of additional medical records. [Tr. 5, 8].*fn2 The ALJ's ruling therefore became the Commissioner's final decision. Through his timely complaint, plaintiff has properly brought his case before this court for review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

II. Applicable Legal Standards

This court's review is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 735 F.2d 962, 963 (6th Cir. 1984). "Substantial evidence" is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The "substantiality of evidence must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Beavers v. Sec'y of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 577 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1978) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)). In reviewing administrative decisions, the court must take care not to "abdicate [its] conventional judicial function," despite the narrow scope of review. Universal Camera, 340 U.S. at 490.

An individual is eligible for SSI benefits on the basis of financial need and either age, blindness, or disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382(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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A).

[A]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). Disability is evaluated pursuant to a five-step analysis summarized as follows:

1. If claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled.

2. If claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity, his impairment must be severe before he can be found to be disabled.

3. If claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity and is suffering from a severe impairment that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months, and his impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry.

4. If claimant's impairment does not prevent him from doing his past relevant work, he is not disabled.

5. Even if claimant's impairment does prevent him from doing his past relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that accommodates his residual functional capacity and vocational factors (age, education, skills, etc.), he is not disabled.

Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 529 (6th Cir. 1997) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). Plaintiffs bear the burden of proof at the first four steps. Walters, 127 F.3d at 529. The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Id.

III. Background and Testimony

Plaintiff was born in 1964 and has a twelfth grade education. [Tr. 56, 69]. He is approximately six feet tall and weighs as little as 103 pounds. [Tr. 399, 455].

Plaintiff reports that his past relevant work was pushing shopping carts at a discount store [Tr. 64] for either "three or four days" [Tr. 336], "three or four months" [Tr. 340], or "one month" [Tr. 419]. Elsewhere, plaintiff told a medical source that he was self-employed up to about a few days before [April 2003]. He and his father used to work together doing jobs such as yard work or setting up mobile homes or buying various articles on wholesale price and selling them retail for a profit. . . . He says the reason he quit working a few days before [April 2003] was because of problems with his legs. He had pain in the leg due to a cyst. [Tr. 349]. Plaintiff also worked as a truck driver more than twenty years ago. Regarding that job, he has told the Commissioner both that, "I dentt carrying enything [sic] they would load the truck and unload the truck all [I] did was drive" [Tr. 64] and "lot of times [I] had to load and unload my truck and lots of time [I] had too carrying [sic] stuff from the loading dock to put on the truck." [Tr. 102].

Plaintiff alleges constant and "almost unbearable" pain in his back, neck, and right knee. [Tr. 109, 112]. He further alleges that he cannot remember or concentrate due to pain, stress, and "loss of parents." [Tr. 113, 614].

Plaintiff has informed the Commissioner that he can perform housework including weekly mopping and mowing. [Tr. 116]. Elsewhere he has stated that, although capable, he does no housework whatsoever because a woman who the record alternatively terms a neighbor [Tr. 335, 350, 365, 611, 620], friend [Tr. 81, 91, 265, 419, 508], roommate [Tr. 134, 335, 350, 365, 419, 508], or wife [Tr. 268] "does it all." [Tr. 337, 421].*fn3 Plaintiff can shop, drive, and regularly attend auctions. [Tr. 110, 116, 140].

Plaintiff claims that he does not know how to write a check. [Tr. 337]. Conversely, his brother states that plaintiff can pay bills, handle a savings account, and use a checkbook. [Tr. 139].

IV. Relevant Medical Evidence

On appeal, plaintiff argues only that the ALJ erred in dismissing: (1) the opinion of his treating pulmonologist; and (2) hearing testimony pertaining to weakness, fatigue, "no motivation, must be reminded of basic things, and . . . no knowledge of how to function on his own." The court's discussion will therefore focus on ...

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