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Cantrell v. Astrue

June 19, 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. 16] will be granted, and plaintiff's motion for summary judgment [doc. 12] will be denied.

I. Procedural History

Plaintiff was born in 1945. She applied for benefits in September 2003, claiming to be disabled by residuals of cervical spinal cancer, including headaches and restricted motion of the head and neck. [Tr. 114, 138, 152].*fn1

Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of March 5, 1997. [Tr. 114].*fn2 The application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which took place before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") in May 2006.

By decision dated September 6, 2006, the ALJ denied benefits. He concluded that plaintiff suffers from "history of treated papillary carcinoma; heart condition; psoriasis; scleritis; high cholesterol; degenerative disc disease with neck pain and headaches; history of mood disorder; and arthritis in her hands," which are "severe" impairments but not equal, individually or in concert, to any impairment listed by the Commissioner. [Tr. 78]. The ALJ further concluded that, on her date last insured, plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to return to her past relevant work as a counselor. [Tr. 79-81]. Plaintiff was accordingly deemed ineligible for benefits.

Plaintiff then sought, and was denied, review by the Commissioner's Appeals Council, despite the submission and consideration of additional medical records. [Tr. 3-12]. The ALJ's ruling 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 for review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).*fn3

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 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 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. Id.

III. Background

Plaintiff's past relevant employment is as a counselor. [Tr. 139]. She alleges constant, severe, and intractable pain of the head and neck. [Tr. 121, 125-26]. At the 2006 administrative hearing, plaintiff testified that her purported disability, as of the March 31, 2003 date last insured, was due to pain "mostly in my neck and my head." [Tr. 614]. On and after October 23, 2003, plaintiff informed the Commissioner that "everything [had] changed" since the September 2003 filing of her claim, that she was "getting worse," and that she could no longer "do what I used to do." [Tr. 128, 130, 132].

The Department of Veterans Affairs has declared plaintiff 100% permanently and totally disabled effective December 1, 1994, due to service-connected malignancy. [Tr. 535, 562]. The Commissioner must nonetheless separately decide the question of disability under Social Security law, and "a ...

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