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Rodriguez v. Colvin

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

July 8, 2013

DIANA M. RODRIGUEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

DANNY C. REEVES, District Judge.

This matter is pending for consideration of cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff Diana Marie Rodriguez ("Rodriguez" or "the Claimant") and Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner").[1] [Record Nos. 10, 11] Rodriguez argues that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in concluding that she is not disabled. She seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and an award of benefits. The Commissioner, however, contends that the ALJ's decision is proper and should be affirmed.

Because substantial evidence supports the administrative decision that Rodriguez was not disabled and because Rodriguez's arguments are without merit, the Court will grant the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment and deny the relief sought by Rodriguez.

I.

Rodriguez filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on September 23, 2008, alleging disability beginning October 1, 2007. [Tr., pp. 166-68] Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. [Tr., p. 21] Rodriguez appeared and testified at an administrative hearing held on April 5, 2011, in Frankfort, Kentucky, before ALJ Sheila Lowther. [ Id. ] Trevor A. Smith, Rodriguez's attorney, and vocational expert ("VE") Tina Stambaugh was also present at the hearing. [ Id. ] ALJ Lowther issued a decision on April 11, 2011, finding that Rodriguez is not disabled under the framework of section 204.00 of the Social Security Act and, therefore, is not entitled to benefits. [Tr, pp. 21-28]

Rodriguez was twenty-nine years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. [Tr., pp. 27, 166] She has a limited education, having completed eighth grade, and prior work experience as a nursing assistant, housekeeper, and deli worker. [Tr., pp. 29, 40, 76, 182-86, 215, 218] Her alleged disability results from anxiety and panic attacks. [Tr., pp. 44-45, 214]

After reviewing the record and the testimony presented during the administrative hearing, the ALJ concluded that Rodriguez suffers from the severe impairment of panic disorder. [Tr., p. 23] Notwithstanding this impairment, ALJ Lowther found that Rodriguez retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels. [Tr., pp. 25-26] However, she made the following findings regarding the Claimant's nonexertional limitations: "[Rodriguez] is restricted to simple repetitive tasks in low stress environment[s] in a non public setting, i.e., no fast paced work or production quotas. The claimant can interact appropriately with co-workers and supervisors." [Tr., p. 25]

Based on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that Rodriguez could not perform past relevant work. However, in considering the Claimant's age, education, work experience and RFC, she found that Rodriguez could perform other jobs in the national economy, such as a laundry worker and inspector/sorter. [Tr., pp. 26-28] After determining that Rodriguez could perform other work existing in significant numbers, the ALJ concluded that she was not disabled. As a result of the ALJ's assessment, Rodriguez was denied SSI benefits. [Tr., p. 28]

II.

Under the Social Security Act, a "disability" is defined as "the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity' because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment of at least one year's expected duration." Cruse v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 502 F.3d 532, 539 (6th Cir. 2007). A claimant's Social Security disability determination is made by an ALJ in accordance with "a five-step sequential evaluation process.'" Combs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 459 F.3d 640, 642 (6th Cir. 2006) (en banc) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)). If the claimant satisfies the first four steps of the process, the burden shifts to the Commissioner with respect to the fifth step. See Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003).

First, the claimant must demonstrate that she is not engaged in substantial gainful employment at the time of the disability application. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). Second, the claimant must show that she suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). Third, if the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful employment and has a severe impairment which is expected to last for at least twelve months and which meets or equals a listed impairment, she will be considered disabled without regard to age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). Fourth, if the Commissioner cannot make a determination of disability based on medical evaluations and current work activity and the claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner will then review the claimant's RFC and relevant past work to determine whether she can perform her past work. If she can, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f).

Under the fifth step of the analysis, if the claimant's impairment prevents her from doing past work, the Commissioner will consider her RFC, age, education, and past work experience to determine whether she can perform other work. If she cannot perform other work, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g). The Commissioner has the burden of proof only on "the fifth step, proving that there is work available in the economy that the claimant can perform." White v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 312 F.Appx. 779, 785 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 391 (6th Cir. 1999)).

Judicial review of the denial of a claim for Social Security benefits is limited to determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). The substantial-evidence standard presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which decision makers can go either way, without interference from the court. McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as sufficient to support the conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007).

If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed even if the Court would decide the case differently and even if a claimant's position is also supported by substantial evidence. Smith v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 482 F.3d 873, 876 (6th Cir. 2007); Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007); Longworth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005); Casey v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 987 F.2d 1230, 1233 (6th Cir. ...


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