United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville Division
SANDRA K. O'MARY, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
THOMAS A. VARLAN, Chief District Judge
This case is before Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 17, 18] and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support [Docs. 20, 21]. Plaintiff Sandra K. O'Mary seeks judicial review of the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("the ALJ"), the final decision of the Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner").
Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income ("SSI") on June 7, 2010, alleging disability since January 19, 2010, due to subluxation of the spine, kyphosis and hyperlordosis of the cervical spine, shortness of breath, anxiety, and headaches, fibromyalgia, and mild osteoarthritis. Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which was held before ALJ Joan Lawrence in Knoxville, Tennessee, on November 8, 2011. At the hearing, plaintiff amended her onset date to August 13, 2010. Plaintiff was present and testified. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on February 3, 2012, finding plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of that decision; thus, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision.
I. ALJ FINDINGS
The ALJ made the following findings:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2014.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 13, 2010, the amended alleged onset date. (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq ., and 416.971 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: hypertension, osteoarthritis, headaches (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except that the claimant can only occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds.
6. The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a laborer. This work does not require the performance of work related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
7. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from August 13, 2010, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(f) and 416.920(f)).
II. DISABILITY ELIGIBILITY
This case involves an application for disability insurance benefits as well as SSI benefits. An individual qualifies for disability insurance benefits if he or 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). To qualify for SSI benefits, an individual must file an application and be an "eligible individual" as defined in the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a); 20 C.F.R. § 416.202. 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 "[t]o 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. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his or her physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he or she is not only unable to do previous work but cannot, considering the individual's 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 the individual lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for the individual, or whether the individual would be hired if he or she applied for work. Id. §§ 423(d)(2)(B), 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). The plaintiff bears the burden of proof at the first four steps. Id. The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Id. At the fifth step, the Commissioner must prove that there is work available in the national economy that the plaintiff could perform. Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 203 F.3d 388, 391 (6th Cir. 1999) (citing Bowen v. Yuckert , 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987)).
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
When reviewing the Commissioner's determination of whether an individual is disabled pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court is limited to determining "whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence." Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009) (citing Key v. Callahan , 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)). If the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and his findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record, his decision is conclusive and must be affirmed. Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007) (quotation omitted); see also Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison v. NLRB , 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)).
It is immaterial whether the record may also possess substantial evidence to support a different conclusion from that reached by the ALJ, or whether the reviewing judge may have decided the case differently. Crisp v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 790 F.2d 450, 453 n.4 (6th Cir. 1986). The substantial evidence standard is intended to create a "zone of choice' within which the Commissioner can act, without the fear of court interference." Buxton v. Halter , 246 F.3d 762, 773 (6th Cir. 2001) (quoting Mullen v. Bowen , 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986)). Therefore, the Court will not "try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor decide questions of credibility." Walters , 127 F.3d at 528.
In addition to reviewing the ALJ's findings to determine whether they were supported by substantial evidence, the Court also reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether it was reached through application of the correct legal standards and in accordance with the procedure mandated by the regulations and rulings promulgated by the Commissioner. See Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004). The Court may, however, ...