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Tarlton v. Astrue

March 25, 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 disability insurance and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. For the reasons provided herein, defendant's motion for summary judgment [doc. 17] will be granted, and plaintiff's motion for summary judgment [doc. 15] will be denied.

I. Procedural History

Plaintiff was born in 1972. He applied for benefits in May 2003, claiming to be disabled by pain, migraines, posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), anxiety, hepatitis C, previous broken backs, previous broken necks, and the alleged removal of his spleen, left kidney, half of his stomach, and half of his large and small intestines. [Tr. 63, 70, 103, 629].

Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of October 11, 2000. [Tr. 63, 629].*fn1 The present applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which took place before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on January 27, 2005.

On March 18, 2005, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. He concluded that plaintiff suffers from "generalized anxiety disorder, most recent episode of bipolar disorder, degenerative disc disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disese [sic]," which are "severe" but not equal, individually or in concert, to any impairment listed by the Commissioner. [Tr. 23-24]. Terming plaintiff's subjective complaints "not totally credible" in light of his activity level and his significant past history of polysubstance abuse, the ALJ found plaintiff to have the residual functional capacity ("RFC") "to perform simple, low stress, unskilled light exertion that does not require lifting more than 35 pounds and that does expose [him] to respiratory irritants." [Tr. 24-25, 27]. Relying on vocational expert testimony, the ALJ determined that plaintiff remained able to perform a significant number of jobs existing in the regional and national economies. [Tr. 26-27]. Plaintiff was accordingly deemed ineligible for benefits.

Plaintiff then sought, and was denied, review from the Commissioner's Appeals Council, despite the submission and consideration of additional medical records.

[Tr. 7, 10-11].*fn2 The ALJ's ruling became the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. Through his timely complaint, plaintiff has properly brought his case before this court. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

II. Applicable Legal Standards

Review of the Commissioner's decision is confined to whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether his factual findings were supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). "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.

A claimant is entitled to disability insurance payments if he (1) is insured for disability insurance benefits, (2) has not attained retirement age, (3) has filed an application for disability insurance benefits, and (4) is under a disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). "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).

An 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. § 423 (d)(2)(A).*fn3 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, 127 F.3d at 529 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). Plaintiffs bear the burden of proof during the first four steps. Walters, 127 F.3d at 529. The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See id.

III. Background

Plaintiff has a high school diploma. [Tr. 109]. His past relevant employment is as a factory worker and a grocery stocker. [Tr. 166].

Plaintiff is purportedly no longer able to drive. [Tr. 127]. He alleges constant pain throughout his body [Tr. 151-52, 180], is allegedly unable to bend over to tie his own shoes [Tr. 155], has "lost all strength physical" [Tr. 174], and "can't lift nothing no more." [Tr. 809]. Plaintiff contends that, secondary to a 1989 automobile accident, his "body is not physical[ly] able to do the work." [Tr. 125]. He states that his pain was worsened by a 2002 accident in which his girlfriend was killed and in which he: had consumed alcohol; was not wearing a seatbelt; was thrown from the vehicle; may or may not have been driving; and tested positive for marijuana upon treatment at the hospital. [Tr. 310, 315, 330, 335, 812].*fn4

Plaintiff claims to suffer severe headaches every other day. [Tr. 802]. He states that his neck pain, in particular, is "just unbearable." [Tr. 808]. He also complains of post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, and anxiety secondary to his history of motor vehicle accidents. [Tr. 810-11]. He testified that he does no housework because standing increases his pain. [Tr. 814].

Nonetheless, plaintiff has remained able, after his alleged disability onset date, to water flowers, care for his dogs, climb atop a roof at least once, lay flooring at least once, prepare breakfast, "coon hunt" on multiple occasions, fish, "walk in the woods," and make his way to a corral where he was pinned by either a cow or a horse. [Tr. 127-28, 278-79, 301, 394, 397, 438, 506]. Although in June 2003 plaintiff told the Commissioner that he rarely leaves his home [Tr. 127], in August 2003 he told a treating physician that he was "much better" and that he was going out with friends, increasing his daily activities, and had "actually gone [on] a trip recently with a friend and tolerated it very well." [Tr. 442]. As late as November 26, 2003, plaintiff continued to hunt. [Tr. 438]. However, in December 2003 and January 2004, plaintiff told the Commissioner that his health had further ...

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