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Austin v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, Western District of Tennessee

January 14, 2015

CHERYL M. AUSTIN, Plaintiff,



Plaintiff has filed this appeal of the denial of her applications for disability benefits and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. On March 23, 2012, following a hearing, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) found that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Act. The Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration adopted the ALJ’s decision with some modifications, as discussed below. This decision became the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff then filed this action, requesting reversal of the Commissioner's decision. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a claimant may obtain judicial review of any final decision made by the Commissioner after a hearing to which he was a party. “The court shall have the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” Id. The court's review is limited to determining whether or not there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Wyatt v. Secretary, 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992); Cohen v. Secretary, 964 F.2d 524, 528 (6th Cir. 1992), and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Landsaw v Secretary, 803 F.2d 211, 213 (6th Cir. 1986).

The Commissioner, not the court, is charged with the duty to weigh the evidence, to make credibility determinations and resolve material conflicts in the testimony, and to decide the case accordingly. See Crum v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 642, 644 (6th Cir. 1990); Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). When substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's determination, it is conclusive, even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion. Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986). A reviewing court must defer to findings of fact by an appeals council when those findings conflict with the factual findings of the ALJ. Id.

Plaintiff was born on January 6, 1959, and was fifty one years old at the time of the filing of her applications for benefits on January 22, 2010. R. 35-38. She has a high school education. R. 12. Plaintiff claims disability from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and degenerative disc disease. R. 13.

The ALJ determined that: (1) Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through March 31, 2012; (2) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date; (3) Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and degenerate disc disease; however, she does not have impairments, either alone or in combination, that meet or equal the requirements of any listed impairment contained in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 of the listing of impairments; (4) Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform light work except she must avoid concentrated exposure to dust, fumes, gases, poorly ventilated areas and other pulmonary irritants; (5) Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity does not preclude performance of her past relevant work as a mail clerk; (6) Plaintiff was not under a “disability” as defined in the Act at any time through the date of this decision.

The Appeals Council agreed with all of these findings except the finding that Plaintiff had past relevant work as a mail clerk. The parties agree with the Appeals Council’s conclusion, as does the court. There is no evidence that Plaintiff ever worked as a mail clerk. However, the Appeals Council found that Plaintiff had past relevant work as a sewing machine operator and that her residual functional capacity did not preclude her returning to this work. Plaintiff disputes this finding.

The Social Security Act defines disability as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). The claimant bears the ultimate burden of establishing an entitlement to benefits. Born v. Secretary, 923 F.2d 1168, 1173 (6th Cir. 1990). The initial burden of going forward is on the claimant to show that she is disabled from engaging in her former employment; the burden of going forward then shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate the existence of available employment compatible with the claimant's disability and background. Id.

The Commissioner conducts the following, five-step analysis to determine if an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Act:

1. An individual who is engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found to be disabled regardless of medical findings.
2. An individual who does not have a severe impairment will not be found to be disabled.
3. A finding of disability will be made without consideration of vocational factors, if an individual is not working and is suffering from a severe impairment which meets the duration requirement and which meets or equals a listed impairment in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the regulations.
4. An individual who can perform work that he has done in the past will not be found to be disabled.
5. If an individual cannot perform his or her past work, other factors including age, education, past work experience and residual functional capacity must be considered ...

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