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Smoot v. Colvin

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

June 19, 2014

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. [Record Nos. 12, 15] Plaintiff Johnny Lee Smoot ("Smoot" or "the Claimant") argues that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") assigned to his case erred in evaluating opinions from two consultants and by failing to consider all of Smoot's functional restrictions. As a result, Smoot seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and an award of benefits. Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), contends that the ALJ's determination is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant the Commissioner's motion and deny the relief sought by Smoot.


On December 18, 2009, Smoot applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits ("DIB"), and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title II and Part A of Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). [ See Administrative Transcript, pp. 168-73; hereafter, "Tr."] He alleges a disability beginning December 1, 2007. [ Id., p. 168] Smoot's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. [ Id., pp. 94-101, 104-09] On August 16, 2011, an administrative hearing was held before ALJ Andrew Chwalibog in Prestonsburg, Kentucky. [ Id., p. 28] Smoot appeared and testified, represented by attorney William Grover Arnett. [ Id. ] Vocational expert ("VE") Gina Baldwin also testified during the hearing. [ Id. ]

Smoot was fifty-one years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. [ Id., p. 33] He has an eighth grade education and has previously worked as a furnace operator, machine operator, forklift operator, groundskeeper, and industrial cleaner. [ Id., pp. 33-34, 43] When he filed for benefits, Smoot claimed to be disabled due to removal of his right eye, depression and anxiety, stomach pain related to ulcers, and back pain. [ Id., p. 196] Upon filing for reconsideration, Smoot also alleged that he had difficulty using his right hand, difficulty breathing due to pain and stiffness, and a worsening hernia. [ Id., p. 230] During the administrative hearing, Smoot alleged he was unable to work due to declining vision; pain in his lower back, stomach, and legs; numbness in his feet; and headaches ocurring two or three times per week. [ Id., pp. 35-40]

After reviewing the record and testimony presented during the administrative hearing, ALJ Chwalibog concluded that Smoot suffered from the severe impairments of status-post right eye removal, ventral hernia, depressive/anxiety disorder, and estimated low intellectual functioning. [ Id., p. 15] Notwithstanding these impairments, the ALJ determined that Smoot maintained the residual functioning capacity ("RFC") to perform light work subject to the following limitations:

[Smoot] should only occasionally push or pull with both upper and lower extremities. He should never climb ladders or scaffolds but could occasionally stoop, crouch or crawl. He should not perform jobs requiring bilateral visual acuity, depth perception, or wide fields of vision. He should avoid all exposure to hazards (machinery, heights, etc.). He retains the ability to understand, recall, and carry out simple, familiar instructions and procedures requiring brief learning periods. He could concentrate and persist at simple, familiar tasks requiring some independent judgment and involving minimal variations in two-hour segments. He has an ability to interact as needed with supervisors and peers sufficiently for task completion, yet involving no significant interaction with the public on more than an occasional basis. [Smoot] also retains the ability to adapt adequately to situational conditions and changes with reasonable support and structure.

[ Id., pp. 17-18]

ALJ Chwalibog determined that Smoot could not perform past relevant work. [ Id., p. 21] However, after considering Smoot's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that he could perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, such as hand packer, night cleaner, house sitter, grader/sorter, final assembler, and bench worker. [ Id., p. 22] Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded that Smoot was not disabled under the Act. [ Id. ]


Under the 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), 416.920(b). Second, the claimant must show that he 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, he 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 he can perform his past work. If he can, he 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 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), 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.App'x 779, 785 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 391 (6th Cir. 1999)).

The Court's standard of review of the Commissioner's determination "is both familiar and limited." Kobetic v. Comm'r, 114 F.App'x 171, 173 (6th Cir. 2004). 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 substantialevidence 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 ...

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