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Miller v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Winchester

December 3, 2019

SANDRA MILLER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          SUSAN K. LEE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Sandra Miller (“Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying her disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Each party has moved for judgment [Docs. 15 & 19], and filed supporting briefs [Docs. 16 & 20]. For the reasons stated below: (1) Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment [Doc. 15] will be DENIED; (2) the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment [Doc. 19] will be GRANTED; and (3) the decision of the Commissioner will be AFFIRMED.

         I. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         According to the administrative record [Doc. 11 (“Tr.”)], Plaintiff filed her applications for DIB and SSI on October 20, 2015, alleging disability beginning October 5, 2013. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration at the agency level. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which was held on September 6, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. On January 31, 2018, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act at any time from the alleged onset date through the date of the decision.

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff timely filed the instant action.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. Education and Employment Background

         Plaintiff was born August 23, 1959 (Tr. 188). She has at least a high school education, and is able to communicate in English. She has past relevant work as a janitor and as a quality control inspector, both of which are considered semi-skilled occupations in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles[1] (“DOT”). The janitor occupation is considered a medium exertional level job in the DOT, and the quality control inspector occupation is considered a light exertional level job.

         B. Medical Records

         In her Disability Report, Plaintiff alleged disability due to anxiety, depression, and a bulging disc (Tr. 272). While there is no need to summarize the medical records herein, the relevant records have been reviewed.

         C. Hearing Testimony

         At the hearing before the ALJ on September 6, 2017, Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing. The Court has carefully reviewed the transcript of the hearing (Tr. 27-52).

         III. ELIGIBILITY AND THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         A. Eligibility

         “The Social Security Act defines a disability as 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.'” Schmiedebusch v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 536 Fed.Appx. 637, 646 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)); see also Parks v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 413 Fed.Appx. 856, 862 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). A claimant is disabled “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.” Parks, 413 Fed.Appx. at 862 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) determines eligibility for disability benefits by following a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The five-step process provides:

1) If the claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, the claimant is not disabled.
2) If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment-i.e., an impairment that significantly limits his or her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities-the claimant is not disabled.
3) If the claimant has a severe impairment(s) that meets or equals one of the listings in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the regulations and meets the duration requirement, the claimant is disabled.
4) If the claimant's impairment does not prevent him or her from doing his or her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled.
5) If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, the claimant is not disabled.

Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 582 F.3d 647, 652 (6th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted). The claimant bears the burden to show the extent of his impairments, but at step five, the Commissioner bears the burden to show that, notwithstanding those impairments, there are jobs the claimant is capable of performing. See Ealy v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 594 F.3d 504, 512-13 (6th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted).

         B. The ALJ's Findings

         At step one of the five-step process, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date, October 5, 2013, although she had performed a limited amount of work as a cashier in 2016. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: (1) lumbar spine L5-S1 multi-level spondylosis with hypertrophy, (2) L4-5 grade 2 anterolisthesis with degenerative disc disease, (3) depressive/bipolar disorder, (4) anxiety/obsessive-compulsive disorder. At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         Next, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and ...


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