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Teaster v. Astrue

June 5, 2008

JEFFREY TEASTER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

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. For the reasons provided herein, defendant's motion for summary judgment [doc. 17] will be denied, and plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings [doc. 12] will be granted to the extent it seeks remand under sentence four of § 405(g).*fn1

I.

Procedural History Plaintiff filed the present benefits application in July 2003, claiming to be disabled by "low back pain, can't stoop, bend, stand, or sit for long periods of time." [Tr. 147, 178]. He alleged a disability onset date of December 6, 1996. [Tr. 147].*fn2 The application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which took place before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") in March 2005.

In July 2005, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. [Tr. 96-103]. Plaintiff sought review from the Commissioner's Appeals Council, which vacated and remanded for further evaluation of plaintiff's back impairment. [Tr. 123-26]. In material part the Appeals Council ruled, "The residual functional capacity ["RFC"] established by the Administrative Law Judge indicates that the claimant is unable to stoop or bend forward . . . . According to Social Security Ruling 85-15, stooping is required to perform almost any kind of work. . . . Further consideration of the vocational aspects of this case is warranted." [Tr. 125].

The ALJ conducted a second administrative hearing in December 2006 and subsequently rendered another decision denying benefits. Therein, he found that plaintiff suffers from "low back pain, dysthymia, personality disorder, history of substance abuse, [and] kidney impairments," which are "severe" impairments but not equivalent, singularly or in concert, to any impairment listed by the Commissioner. [Tr. 17]. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff's subjective complaints are to some degree not credible, and he also declined to adopt a treating physician opinion that plaintiff should never engage in postural activities such as bending and stooping. [Tr. 18-21]. The ALJ found plaintiff capable of light work subject to certain mental, postural, and environmental limitations. [Tr. 18]. The ALJ ultimately concluded, based on vocational expert testimony, that a significant number of light jobs exist in the local and national economies to accommodate plaintiff's RFC. [Tr. 21-22].

Appeals Council review was denied on April 19, 2007. [Tr. 7]. The ALJ's second ruling therefore became the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Through his timely complaint, plaintiff has properly brought his case before this court for review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

II.

Background and Testimony Plaintiff was born in 1963 and has a ninth grade education. [Tr. 49, 147]. He has previously performed construction work. [Tr. 179]. Due to back pain, plaintiff purportedly spends his days "[j]ust laying around." [Tr. 61]. He allegedly "can't get out and do anything[.]" [Tr. 232].

III.

Vocational Expert Testimony Vocational expert Edward Smith ("VE") testified at the second administrative hearing. The ALJ hypothesized a worker of plaintiff's age, education, and work experience restricted to light work, with additional limitations including only "occasional stooping, bending, crouching, crawling, kneeling, or balancing." [Tr. 84].

In response, the VE identified unskilled jobs existing in the regional and national economies that the hypothetical claimant could perform - cashier, textile checker, laundry folder, and rental clerk. [Tr. 85]. The rental clerk position would be eliminated if the hypothetical claimant was unable to read or write. [Tr. 85-86]. The cashier position would be eliminated if the hypothetical claimant were unable to make change or identify numbers. [Tr. 86]. If the claimant would miss work three or more days per month, all employment would be precluded. [Tr. 86].

IV.

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.

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. ยง 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 ...


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