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Hawkins v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Western Division

March 31, 2017

JOHN H. HAWKINS, Plaintiff,



         This action was filed by the Plaintiff, John H. Hawkins, to obtain judicial review of the Defendant Commissioner's final decision denying his applications for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. Plaintiff's applications for benefits were denied initially and upon reconsideration by the Social Security Administration. At the Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. 307-329.) On April 3, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 9-21.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 29, 2012. (R. 5-7). Thus, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         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 or she was a party. The reviewing court may “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. Judicial review is limited to determining whether or not there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the Commissioner's decision, and whether the correct legal standards were applied. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Kyle v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 609 F.3d 847, 854 (6th Cir. 2010); Lindsley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 560 F.3d 601, 604-08 (6th Cir. 2009).

         Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Perales, 402 U.S. at 401; Kyle, 609 F.3d at 854; Lindsley, 560 F.3d at 604-05. The Commissioner, not the reviewing court, is charged with the duty to weigh the evidence, to make credibility determinations, and to resolve material conflicts in the testimony. See Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007). In addition, if the decision is supported by substantial evidence, it should not be reversed even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion. See Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 353 (6th Cir. 2001); Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986).

         Plaintiff was born on November 19, 1957, and was fifty-four years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. (R. 21, 70, 310.) He has a high school education. (R. 20, 310.) Plaintiff has past relevant work as a security guard. (R. 20, 76-77.) He alleges that he became disabled on November 30, 2003, due to mental problems, bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia and pain in his back, legs and feet. (R. 42, 75, 90.)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through November 3, 2003, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 14.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's degenerative joint disease of the knees, history of treatment for depression and history of alcohol dependence were severe impairments but that his impairments did not, either alone or in combination, meet or equal the severity of any listed impairment contained in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 of the listing of impairments. (R. 14-15.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to lift a maximum of twenty-five pounds frequently and fifty pounds occasionally; the ability to understand, remember and carry out only simple job instructions; and should have no significant interaction with the general public. (R. 15-20.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as a security guard. (R. 20.) Using the Medical-Vocational Rules (“the grids”), Rule 203.22 supported a finding that Plaintiff was not disabled; therefore, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined there are unskilled jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (R. 20-21.) Accordingly, Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Act at any time through the date of the April 3, 2012 decision. (R. 21.)

         The Social Security Act defines disability as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). The initial burden of going forward is on the claimant to show that he is disabled from engaging in her former employment; the burden then shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate the existence of available employment compatible with the claimant's disability and background. Id.; see also Felisky v. Bowen, 35 F.3d 1027, 1035 (6th Cir. 1994). The claimant bears the ultimate burden of establishing an entitlement to benefits. Cotton v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 692, 695 (6th Cir. 1993).

         In determining disability, the Commissioner conducts a five-step sequential analysis, as set forth in the applicable regulations:

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 found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
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 past relevant work, other factors including age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity will be considered to determine if other work can be performed.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). Further analysis is unnecessary if it is determined that an individual is not disabled at any point in this sequential evaluation process. Id.; see also Howard v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 276 F.3d 235, 238 (6th Cir. 2002). Here, the analysis proceeded to step five, where the ALJ determined that, although Plaintiff cannot perform his past relevant work, there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that he can perform.

         Plaintiff does not contest the ALJ's findings with regard to his physical impairments. However, he contends the ALJ erred in failing to find that his mental impairments met Listing 12.04 (Affective Disorders), and/or Listing 12.08 (Personality Disorders). The burden of proof at the listing level of the sequential evaluation process is on the claimant. In order for a claimant to show that his impairment matches a listing, the impairment must meet specified medical criteria. See Zebley v. Sullivan, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990). The paragraph A criteria of the Listing for Mental Disorders are used to establish the existence of a mental ...

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