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Lawrence v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Frankfort

February 18, 2014

CINDY LAWRENCE, 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 Cindy Lawrence ("Lawrence" or "the Claimant") and Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"). [Record Nos. 10, 11] Lawrence argues that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") assigned to her case erred because the decision contains the signature of an ALJ other than the one who presided over her administrative hearing. [Record No. 10-1, p. 10] She also alleges error with the ALJ's consideration of the medical opinions in the record. [ Id., p. 11] However, the Commissioner contends that the ALJ's decision was proper and should be affirmed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant the Commissioner's motion and deny the relief sought by Lawrence.

I.

On June 4, 2010, Lawrence applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Act. [ See Administrative Transcript, p.136; hereafter "Tr."] On June 9, 2010, she applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Act. [Tr., p. 12] Lawrence alleges a disability beginning May 31, 2010. [ Id. ] Her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. [Tr., pp. 45-46] On August 29, 2011, an administrative hearing was held before ALJ Roger L. Reynolds, in Lexington, Kentucky. [Tr., p. 26] Lawrence appeared and testified, represented by attorney Robert Cornett. [ Id. ] Impartial vocational expert ("VE") Jackie Rogers also testified at the hearing. [ Id. ]

Lawrence was thirty-three years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. She has a tenthgrade education, and has previously worked as a cashier, factory worker, and restaurant server. [Record No. 10-1, p. 4; Tr., p. 161] She claims to be disabled due to scoliosis. [Tr., p. 160] After reviewing the record and testimony presented during the administrative hearing, the ALJ concluded that Lawrence suffered from the following severe impairments: "chronic low back pain secondary to degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with disc bulges at the L4/L5, L5/S1 levels; increased kyphosis of the spine; depression, not otherwise specified; and borderline intellectual functioning." [Tr., p. 14] Notwithstanding those impairments, the ALJ determined that Lawrence maintained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, with the additional limitations of:

lifting/carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sitting, standing, or walking up to 6 hours each but with no prolonged standing or walking in excess of one hour without interruption; no exposure to concentrated vibration or industrial hazards; no climbing of ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; occasional climbing of stairs or ramps; occasional stooping or crouching; requiring entry level work with simple, repetitive, 1-2-3 step procedures; no frequent changes in work routines; no requirement for detailed or complex problem solving, independent planning, or the setting of goals; and preferably in an object-oriented environment with only occasional interaction with the general public.

[Tr., p. 16]

Based on the testimony of VE Rogers, the ALJ determined that Lawrence could not perform past relevant work. [Tr., p. 19] However, after considering the Claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, he found that she could perform other work in the national economy, such as inspector, grader or sorter, and bench assembly. [Tr., pp. 20-21] Based on this finding, the ALJ concluded that Lawrence was not disabled. As a result of the ALJ's assessment, she was denied a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and SSI. [Tr., pp. 55, 56]

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. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). Second, the claimant must show that she suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 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. §§ 404.1520(d), 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 his past work. If she can, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 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. §§ 404.1520(g), 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. ...


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