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Laney v. Colvin

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

April 30, 2013



CANDACE J. SMITH, District Judge.

Plaintiff Ariley Wedzel Laney brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) challenging Defendant Commissioner's final decision denying his application for benefits under Title XVI and Title XIX of the Social Security Act. This matter has been referred to the undersigned for preparation of a Report and Recommendation under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). (R. 3). At issue is whether the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in finding Plaintiff "not disabled" and therefore not entitled to benefits. As explained below, the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. It will therefore be recommended that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (R.11) be denied and Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (R.12) be granted.


In reviewing the decision of an ALJ in social security cases, the only issues before the reviewing court are whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009). The findings of the Commissioner are not subject to reversal merely because there exists in the record substantial evidence to support a different conclusion. Blakley, 581 F.3d at 406. "The substantial-evidence standard... presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which the decisionmakers can go either way, without interference by the courts." Id. (citing Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986)). Thus, even if the evidence could also support another conclusion, the decision of the ALJ must stand if the evidence could reasonably support the conclusion reached. Id. (citing Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)).

In this case, Plaintiff must establish that he is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act in order to qualify for benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). The Act defines "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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

The Social Security Act requires the Commissioner to follow a five-step process when making a determination on a claim of disability. Vance v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 260 F.Appx. 801, 803-04 (6th Cir. 2008) (citing Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990)); Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001). First, a claimant must demonstrate that he is not currently engaged in "substantial gainful activity." Vance, 260 F.Appx. at 803 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b)). Second, if the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, he must demonstrate that he suffers from a severe impairment. Id. at 803-04. "A severe impairment' is one which significantly limits... physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.'" Id. at 804 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c)). Third, if the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, has a severe impairment that is expected to last for at least twelve months, and the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment located at 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app'x 1, then the claimant is presumed disabled regardless of age, education or work experience. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d)). Fourth, the claimant is not disabled if his impairment(s) does not prevent him from doing his past relevant work, or if he can perform other work existing in the national economy. Id. (quoting Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 548 (6th Cir. 2004)).


Plaintiff was fifty-one years old at the time of the ALJ's decision and has a high school education. (Administrative Record [A.R.] 37). Plaintiff has past relevant employment as a welder of automobile parts and as an ambulance attendant, but has not been employed since he was incarcerated in 1999.[2] ( Id. at 40). Plaintiff asserts that his disability is caused by several conditions including chronic pain in his lower back, shoulders, and knees. ( Id. at 40-49, 158). Plaintiff also alleges that he has stomach pain associated with an ulcer, breathing problems, and has had two strokes. (A.R. at 52). In addition, Plaintiff testified that he has difficulty sitting still, bending over, sleeping, or standing for any length of time. ( Id. at 46, 52-54). Plaintiff is taking medication for his high cholesterol and arthritis. ( Id. at 44-45).

Plaintiff filed his application of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on June 30, 2010, alleging disability since July 21, 2008.[3] ( Id. at 16, 143). The Commissioner denied this application initially on October 21, 2010, and again upon reconsideration on January 25, 2011. ( Id. at 69-76, 80-97). Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held before the ALJ, via video conference, on January 5, 2012. ( Id. at 31-64). During this hearing the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and a vocational expert. ( Id. ). After receiving the testimony and reviewing the record, the ALJ issued a written decision on March 9, 2012, finding Plaintiff was not disabled. ( Id. at 16-24).

The ALJ used the five-step sequential process to determine that Plaintiff was not disabled. ( Id. at 16-24). At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment activity since June 30, 2010, the application date. ( Id. at 18). At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has severe impairments of a history of chronic lumbar sprain/strain, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and malnutrition. ( Id. at 18). As part of his analysis, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's high cholesterol and reported history of ulcers, but noted that the records indicated that Plaintiff's high cholesterol is controlled with medication, and that there is no treatment history for ulcers or stroke.[4] At step three, the ALJ specifically considered whether Plaintiff's musculoskeletal, respiratory or digestive conditions satisfied the listing requirements for disorders under Listing 1.00, 3.00, and 5.00 respectively and concluded that those listings were not met. In addition, the ALJ found that while claimant has several conditions resulting in "severe" physical impairments, the record did not establish Plaintiff has an impairment or combination of impairments that equaled in severity any relevant listing under the applicable Federal Regulations. ( Id. at 19).

At step four, the ALJ considered the evidence and determined that Plaintiff has the residual functioning capacity (RFC) to perform a reduced range of light work stating, "claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl." ( Id. at 19). The ALJ heard testimony from an impartial vocational expert (VE) who stated that based on the RFC provided by the ALJ, Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. ( Id. at 59-64). The ALJ proceeded to step five and adopted the VE's opinion that given the stated RFC there are other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff would be able to perform, including light, unskilled occupational duties. (A.R. at 23-24). Specifically, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff is able to perform duties as kitchen helper, laundry worker, machine monitor, small parts assembler, and product grader/sorter. ( Id. at 24). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not "disabled" for social security purposes. ( Id. ).

Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council. (R. 11). While the appeal was pending, Plaintiff submitted new evidence demonstrating that in June 2012 he was diagnosed with invasive adenocarcinoma of the colon (rectal cancer). (A.R. 309-65). The new medical records demonstrate that Plaintiff was referred for further evaluation of liver lesions, potential metastasis and for staging. ( Id. at 309, 321). The record reflects that Plaintiff filed a new claim for benefits for this new diagnosis, which the Commissioner reports has been approved. (A.R. 8; R. 12 at 3). The Appeals Council considered the new evidence with respect to the claim at issue here and found that the new evidence did not provide a basis to change the ALJ's decision. Accordingly, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's March 9, 2012, decision denying Plaintiff benefits the final decision of the Commissioner. (A.R. 1-4).

On October 9, 2012, having exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed the within Complaint, asserting that the ALJ's decision was erroneous. The Plaintiff has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing that the ALJ's RFC determination was not supported by substantial evidence and that the medical evidence supports a finding that he is capable of no more than sedentary work, thus meeting Grid Rule 201.14 requiring a finding that he is disabled. Plaintiff further argues ...

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