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Hopkins v. Colvin

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

March 25, 2014

EDWARD HOPKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION & ORDER

KAREN K. CALDWELL, Chief Judge.

Plaintiff, Edward Hopkins, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The Court, having reviewed the record, will affirm the Commissioner's decision, as it is supported by substantial evidence.

I. OVERVIEW OF THE PROCESS

In determining whether a claimant has a compensable disability under the Social Security Act, the regulations provide a five-step sequential process which the administrative law judge must follow. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)-(e); see Walters v. Commissioner of Social Security, 127 F.3d 525, 529 (6th Cir. 1997). The five steps, in summary, are as follows:

(1) If the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled.
(2) If the claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity, his impairment must be severe before he can be found disabled.
(3) If the claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity and is suffering from a severe impairment that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months, and his impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, the claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry.
(4) If the claimant's impairment does not prevent him from doing past relevant work, he is not disabled.
(5) Even if the claimant's impairment does prevent him from doing his past relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that accommodates his residual functional capacity and vocational factors (age, education, skills, etc.), he is not disabled.

Id. The burden of proof is on the claimant throughout the first four steps of this process to prove that he is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146, n. 5 (1987). If the administrative law judge reaches the fifth step without a finding that the claimant is not disabled, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to consider the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience to determine if he could perform other work. If not, he would be deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). Importantly, the Commissioner only has the burden of proof on "the fifth step, proving that there is work available in the economy that the claimant can perform." Her v. Commissioner of Social Security, 203 F.3d 388, 391 (6th Cir. 1999).

II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND AND THE ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

Plaintiff filed his applications for benefits on December 5, 2006, alleging disability as of October 1, 2006 [TR 98-102, 122, 124].[1] Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and again on reconsideration [TR 87-88, 92-94]. After a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on March 27, 2008 [TR 46], the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on June 25, 2008 [TR 43-53]. On March 11, 2009, the case was remanded by the Appeals Council [TR 38-42]. After a hearing on July 23, 2010 [TR 20], a second ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 6, 2010 [TR 17-30]. Plaintiff's request for review to the Appeals Council was denied on January 31, 2013, and the decision of the ALJ now stands as the final decision of the Commissioner [TR 10-13].

At the time the ALJ rendered his decision, Plaintiff was 46 years old [TR 30, 54]. He has an eighth-grade education and has past relevant work experience as a landscaper and tree trimmer [TR 129, 132]. Plaintiff claims that his ability to work is limited due to a bulging disc and shrinking spine [TR 125]. Plaintiff alleges that he became disabled on October 1, 2006 and that he could no longer work due to his condition [TR 126]. Plaintiff testified that he attempted to work subsequent to his alleged onset date, but had to stop all work in December 2009 due to the pain in his back and legs [TR 22-23, 575-578].

The ALJ began his analysis by determining that Plaintiff has met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2011 [TR 22]. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2006, the alleged onset date [TR 22]. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffers from the following severe impairments: disorders of the back, right leg, and left hip [TR 23]. Continuing on to the third step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the listed impairments [TR 23].

Reviewing the entire administrative record and considering Plaintiff's testimony, the ALJ described Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). [Plaintiff] can lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently; stand 2 hours in an 8-hour workday; walk 2 hours in an 8-hour workday; and sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. [Plaintiff] is unable to climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. ...

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