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Griffith v. Colvin

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

October 7, 2013

CATHERINE D. GRIFFITH, 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 Catherine D. Griffith ("Griffith" or "the Claimant") and Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"). [Record Nos. 6, 7] Griffith argues that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") erred in evaluating the evidence. She seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and an award of benefits. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court grant the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment. The relief sought by Griffith will be denied.

I.

On March 29, 2010, Griffith applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"). [Tr., pp. 133-139] She alleged a disability beginning April 15, 2009. [Tr., p. 169] Her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. [Tr., pp. 64, 76] Griffith, along with her attorney Julie Atkins and vocational expert ("VE") William W. Ellis appeared before ALJ Todd Spangler on June 2, 2011 for an administrative hearing. [Tr., p. 11] On September 13, 2011, ALJ Spangler issued a decision, finding that Griffith was not disabled under section 416.920(g) of the Act. [Tr., p. 21]

Griffith was twenty-one years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. [Tr., p. 20] She completed eleven years of special education and previously worked part-time in a Kroger deli department. [Tr., pp. 36-37, 159] Her alleged disability stems from bipolar disorder, depression, and a nervous condition. [Tr., pp. 157] After reviewing the record and the testimony presented during the administrative hearing, the ALJ concluded that Griffith suffered from a combination of severe impairments, including anxiety and depressive orders. [Tr., p. 13] Notwithstanding these impairments, ALJ Spangler found that Griffith retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work at all exertional levels, but limited her to "work that involves only simple, routine tasks with no more than casual contact with coworkers and the general public, and requires a task-oriented setting that involves few changes in routine." [Tr., p. 15]

The ALJ found that Griffith did not have any past relevant work. [Tr., p. 20] However, considering the Claimant's age, testimony of the VE, education, work experience, and RFC, ALJ Spangler found that Griffith could perform other jobs such as kitchen helper, janitor, and laundry worker. [Tr., p. 21] After determining that Griffith could perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the ALJ concluded that Griffith was not disabled. As a result of the ALJ's assessment Griffith was denied SSI. [ Id. ]

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 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 if they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

III.

Griffith raises two primary issues in her motion for summary judgment. First, she claims that the ALJ erred in concluding that she does not have a medically determinable mental impairment regarding her intellectual functioning. [Record No. 6, p. 6] Second, she asserts that the ALJ improperly relied on a hypothetical to VE Ellis that did not accurately describe her. Griffith contends that this resulted in VE's testimony that does ...


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