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Dryer v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, Covington

March 20, 2014

ANDREA M. DRYER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


DAVID L. BUNNING, District Judge.


This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's and Defendant's cross motions for summary judgment. (Docs. # 10 & 13). For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's administrative decision was not supported by substantial evidence, necessitating a remand.


Plaintiff Andrea M. Dryer is a resident of Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky. (Doc. # 7-1, at 7). For at least 25 years, she worked as a nurse anaesthetist, ( Id. at 236-38), though since 2001, a herniated disc has caused Dryer considerable pain. ( Id. at 15). In 2004, she injured her neck while performing CPR on a patient. ( Id. ) Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff took a medical leave of absence.

In addition to these physical ailments, Plaintiff also alleges that she suffers from severe depression. She has sought treatment for this condition and has been prescribed medication, including Cymbalta. ( Id. at 16).

In 2006, Plaintiff applied for disability benefits under the Social Security Act. Her application was denied initially and after a 2008 hearing before ALJ Kaysar. ( Id. at 157). While she appealed that decision, she filed a new application for disability benefits. ( Id. at 12). That second application was granted the day after ALJ Kaysar issued a written opinion rejecting her first application. ( Id. ) The Social Security Appeals Council then consolidated her first application with the second one. ( Id. ) That consolidated matter was heard before ALJ Smith, who rejected Plaintiff's claims on October 5, 2011. ( Id. ) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff now brings this appeal of the ALJ's decision.


The Court's review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision followed proper legal standards and whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). Under this deferential standard, courts will not substitute their judgment for that of the ALJ. Id. The Court does not resolve evidentiary conflicts or decide questions of credibility. Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). Interpretations of statutes and agency regulations are questions of law, which the Court will review de novo. Smith v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 482 F.3d 873, 876 (6th Cir. 2007).


A. The five-step process and the residual functional capacity

In deciding whether to award disability benefits, the ALJ must proceed through a five-step analysis. Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001). At step one, the ALJ determines whether the applicant is gainfully employed. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). At step two, the issue is whether the applicant suffers from any serious physical or mental impairments. Id. at § 1520©. Assuming the answer is yes, the ALJ then considers whether the applicant's impairments are among those listed in Social Security regulations, such that the applicant is presumed disabled. Id. at § 1520(d).

Neither party disputes the ALJ's fact finding with regards to the first three steps: Plaintiff is not currently employed and does suffer from some significant impairments, but none of these impairments are among those listed in agency regulations. The ALJ found as much in his written opinion. (Doc. # 7-1 at 21).

If a claimant's impairments fail to qualify as a listed impairment under agency regulations, the ALJ must then prepare a residual functional capacity (RFC). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). This RFC is used at both steps four and five of the decision making process. Id. at § 1520(a)(4). At step four, the ALJ decides, in light of the RFC, whether the claimant can perform any past relevant work. Id. at § 1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, then the claimant is not eligible for benefits. Id. If not, the ALJ then considers alternative work the claimant could do, and determines whether enough of that work exists in the national economy to preclude an award of disability benefits. Id. at § 1520(a)(4)(v). This determination is based in part on the RFC, which guides the ALJ regarding the type of work the claimant might be able to perform. Id. Importantly for this case, the ALJ ...

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