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Colgrove v. Astrue

April 9, 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 benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. For the reasons provided herein, defendant's motion for summary judgment [doc. 12] will be granted, and plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings [doc. 10] will be denied. The final decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.

I. Procedural History

Plaintiff applied for benefits in April 2005, claiming to be disabled by neck pain, headaches, and "cancer residuals." [Tr. 35, 72]. She alleged a disability onset date of October 12, 2004, secondary to complications from an automobile accident on that date. [Tr. 33, 49, 72, 362]. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. She then requested a hearing, which took place before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") in November 2006.

On January 5, 2007, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. He concluded that plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease and degenerative joint disease, but that these conditions do not meet or equal any impairment listed by the Commissioner. [Tr. 15]. The ALJ further concluded that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to work at light level of exertion, and that she is able to return to her past relevant work as a department store clerk. [Tr. 15, 17]. Plaintiff was accordingly deemed ineligible for benefits.

Plaintiff then sought review from the Commissioner's Appeals Council. Review was denied on April 4, 2007. [Tr. 4]. The ALJ's ruling therefore became the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Through her timely complaint, plaintiff has properly brought her case before this court. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

II. Applicable Legal Standards

This court's review 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 substantial evidence standard "presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which the decisionmakers can go either way, without interference by the courts." Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (citation omitted). Nonetheless, the court must take care not to "abdicate [its] conventional judicial function," despite the narrow scope of review. Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 490 (1951).

A claimant is entitled to disability insurance payments under the Social Security Act if she (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). Disability is evaluated pursuant to a five-step analysis summarized by the Sixth Circuit 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 at the first four steps. See Walters, 127 F.3d at 529. The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See id.

III. Background

Plaintiff was born in 1951. [Tr. 35]. She has a twelfth grade education. [Tr. 427]. Her previous employment includes work in a department store. [Tr. 79]. She stands 5' 4" tall and weighs up to 222 pounds. [Tr. 293, 375].

Plaintiff alleges weekly migraines and "extreme" pain in her back, neck, arm, shoulder, and chest. [Tr. 49, 60, 62]. She reports numbness and tingling in her arms and hands. [Tr. 56]. Plaintiff is able to clean, shop, walk, and socialize "when I feel good enough." [Tr. 50]. She testified at the administrative hearing that her medication makes ...

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