The plaintiff, Jana Jaye McQueen, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") based on disability. The Court, having reviewed the record, will affirm the Commissioner's decision, as it is supported by substantial evidence.
I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
McQueen filed her claim for DIB benefits on September 19, 2008, alleging an onset date of February 15, 2005 [TR 163-66]. Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration [TR 83-85, 97-105]. After a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued a decision reopening McQueen's prior DIB application and determining that she was disabled from February 15, 2005 through September 16, 2007, but not thereafter [TR 15, 20-30, 148-62]. McQueen subsequently requested review by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied McQueen's request for review on April 4, 2012 [TR 1-6, 11-12]. She has exhausted her administrative remedies and filed a timely action in this Court. This case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
II. THE ADMINISTRATIVE PROCESS AND DECISION
In determining whether a claimant has a compensable disability under the Social Security Act, the regulations provide a five-step sequential process which the administrative law judge ("ALJ") must follow. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)-(e); see Walters v. Commissioner of Social Security, 127 F.3d 525, 529 (6th Cir. 1997). The five steps, in summary, are as follows:
(1) If the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled.
(2) If the claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity, her impairment must be severe before she can be found disabled.
(3) If the 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 her impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, the claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry.
(4) If the claimant's impairment does not prevent her from doing past relevant work, she is not disabled.
(5) Even if the claimant's impairment does prevent her from doing her past relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that accommodates her residual functional capacity and vocational factors (age, education, skills, etc), she is not disabled.
Id. The burden of proof is on the claimant throughout the first four steps of this process to prove that she is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146, n. 5 (1987). If the ALJ reaches the fifth step without a finding that the claimant is not disabled, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to consider her residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience to determine if she could perform other work. If not, she would be deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(f). Importantly, the Commissioner only has the burden of proof on "the fifth step, proving that there is work available in the economy that the claimant can perform." Her v. Commissioner of Social Security, 203 F.3d 388, 391 (6th Cir. 1999).
After conducting a hearing and reviewing the record, the ALJ determined that McQueen was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act from February 15, 2005 through September 16, 2007 [TR 20-30]. However, based on his review of the record, the ALJ determined that medical improvement occurred on September 17, 2007 that is related to her ability to work, and that she has been able to perform substantial gainful activity from that date through the date of his decision. Therefore, while McQueen was disabled from February 15, 2005 through September 16, 2007, her disability ended on September 17, 2007.
McQueen seeks reconsideration of the portion of the ALJ's decision finding McQueen not disabled as of September 17, 2007. When determining whether a claimant's disability has ceased, the ALJ must apply the specific sequential evaluation process set out in 20 C.F.R. §404.1594(f). As part of this process, the ALJ must first determine whether the claimant has experienced medical improvement, which is defined as any decrease in the medical severity of the claimant's impairment(s) based on changes in the symptoms, signs, and/or laboratory findings associated with the claimant's impairment(s). See 20 C.F.R. § 404(b)(1), (c)(1). If there has been medical improvement, then the ALJ must determine if the medical improvement relates to the claimant's ability to work and increases the claimant's RFC. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(4). Once medical improvement is established and is related to the claimant's ability to work, the adjudicator must decide if the claimant's current impairment(s) is severe. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(6). If the impairment(s) is severe, then the ALJ must assess the claimant's current RFC and determine if the claimant can do her past relevant work or other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(7), (8).
In reaching his decision that McQueen was not disabled as of September 17, 2007, the ALJ first noted that her severe impairments included the addition of fibromyalgia to the other severe impairments found existing as of February 15, 2005, including history of sepsis, Klebsiella infection, ARDS (adult respiratory distress syndrome) and coma with resultant severe muscle wasting, bilateral plantar faciitis, bilateral Achilles tendinitis, and mild bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome [TR 24, 27]. However, the ALJ determined that she did not have any impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the impairments in the listings. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(2). The ALJ then determined that as of September 17, 2007, McQueen had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), except that she can frequently lift ten pounds and can occasionally lift up to fifty pounds. Furthermore, in an eight-hour workday, the ALJ determined that she is able to sit eight hours, one hour at a time, and can ...