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Murnane v. Colvin

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

September 20, 2013

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


DANNY C. REEVES, District Judge.

This matter is pending for consideration of cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff Matthew Frank Murnane ("Murnane" or "the Claimant") and Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"). [Record Nos. 11, 13] Murnane contends that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in finding that he is not entitled to a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("Act"). He seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and an award of benefits or, in the alternative, remand for further consideration. The Commissioner asserts that the ALJ's decision was proper and should be affirmed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment and deny the relief sought by Murnane.


On April 27, 2009, Murnane applied for a period of disability and DIB under Title II of the Act. He alleges a disability beginning January 1, 2003.[1] [Tr., pp. 28, 70-75] His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. [ Id. ] On January 14, 2011, an administrative hearing was held by video. Murnane appeared and testified in Cincinnati, Ohio, while ALJ Daniel Dadabo presided from Evanston, Illinois. [Tr., pp. 42-69] Larry Hicks, Murnane's attorney, along with vocational expert ("VE") William J. Kiger were also present at the hearing.[2] [ Id. ] ALJ Dadabo issued a decision on March 23, 2011, finding that Murnane was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Act. [Tr, pp. 28-36]

Murnane was fifty-three years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. [Tr., pp. 25, 45] He has completed three years of college and has prior work experience as a self-employed used car dealer/dealership owner and operator, and auto sales manager. [Tr., pp. 30, 45-46] His alleged disability results from severe hip impairment with status post hip replacement and revisions and a major staph infection in his left hip. [Tr., pp. 32, 83] After reviewing the record and testimony presented during the hearing, the ALJ concluded that Murnane suffered from a severe impairment of avascular hip necrosis with status post hip replacements and revisions.[3] [ Id. ] Notwithstanding this impairment, he found that Murnane retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). [Tr., pp. 32-35] In relevant part, ALJ Dadabo "decline[d] to infer that through the date [of] last insured, the claimant was unable to work on uneven surfaces, around operating machinery[, ] or operate foot controls." [Tr., p. 35]

Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that Murnane could perform his past relevant work as a small business manager, buyer, and sales representative at the light level of exertion, as well as an auto sales manager, generally performed at the sedentary level. [Tr., pp. 35, 66-67] After finding that Murnane could perform past relevant work, the ALJ concluded that he was not disabled. [Tr., p. 35]


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 he is not engaged in substantial gainful employment at the time of the disability application. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant must show that he suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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, he will be considered disabled without regard to age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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 he can perform his past work. If he can, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

Under the fifth step of the analysis, if the claimant's impairment prevents him from doing past work, the Commissioner will consider his RFC, age, education, and past work experience to determine whether he can perform other work. If he cannot perform other work, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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 the 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. 1993). Thus, the Commissioner's findings are conclusive so long as they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


Murnane argues that the Commissioner's determination should be overturned because it is not supported by substantial evidence. More specifically, he contends that: (1) the ALJ impermissibly "played doctor" when making his RFC determination; (2) the ALJ's RFC determination fails to meet the requirements of SSR 96-8p and does not properly explain the basis for Murnane's RFC assessment; and (3) the ALJ violated the treating physician rule when weighing the opinions of Dr. Joel I. Sorger, Orthopedist. [Record No. 11] However, the Commissioner argues that the decision denying benefits to Murnane is supported by substantial evidence.

A. Murnane's RFC

As an initial matter, Murnane argues that the ALJ erred in making RFC findings based on his "own non-expert reading of the record.'" Because the ALJ is not a medical expert, he asserts that these determinations were erroneous. [Record No. 11, p. 8 (citing Hall v. Celebrezze, 314 F.2d 686, 690 (6th Cir. 1963) (the Secretary may not supplant his own opinions regarding physical ...

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