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Ratliff v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Eastern Division, Ashland

August 1, 2014

DONALD CHANDOS RATLIFF, 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 Donald Chandos Ratliff ("Ratliff" or "the Claimant") and Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"). [Record Nos. 10, 11] Ratliff argues that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") assigned to his case erred in finding that he is not entitled to a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("Act"). He seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and remand for an award of benefits. However, the Commissioner contends that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, was decided by proper legal standards, and should be affirmed.

For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that remand for further proceedings is necessary. Therefore, the Court will grant partial relief to Ratliff and deny the Commissioner's motion.

I.

On July 7, 2010, Ratliff applied for a period of disability and DIB under Title II of the Act. [ See Administrative Transcript, "Tr., " at p. 13, 161-62.] He alleged a disability beginning February 23, 2009. Ratliff's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Ratliff, along with attorney William Grover Arnett and impartial vocational expert ("VE") Leah P. Salyers, appeared before ALJ Jerry Meade, on February 8, 2012, for an administrative hearing. In a decision dated April 5, 2012, ALJ Meade found that Ratliff was not disabled under sections 216(i), 223(d) of the Act. [Tr., pp. 13-21]

Ratliff was forty-five years old at the time of his alleged onset date. He has a high school education and past relevant work experience as a millwright. [Tr., pp. 15, 20, 31] Ratliff alleges disability due to left knee pain. [Tr., pp. 201, 208] However, after initially applying for a period of disability and DIB, he also alleges disability due to a ruptured colon, hernia, colostomy, and the effects of two related emergency surgeries. [Tr., p. 8] After reviewing the record and considering the testimony presented during the administrative hearing, the ALJ concluded that Ratliff suffers from severe impairments of left knee degenerative joint disease, post-traumatic arthritis of his left little finger, obesity, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and alcoholic liver cirrhosis. [Tr., pp. 15-16] Notwithstanding these impairments, ALJ Meade found that Ratliff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a reduced range of light work, requiring that he be able to alternate between sitting and standing at thirty minute intervals. The ALJ also concluded that Ratliff's RFC is subject to the additional following limitations:

He can only occasionally operate foot controls with the left lower extremity. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can frequently handle, finger, and feel with the non-dominant left upper extremity. He should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold; extreme heat; excessive vibration; irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poorly ventilated areas; and hazards such as moving machinery and unprotected heights.

[Tr., pp. 17-18 ]

Based on the testimony presented during the administrative hearing, together with the medical evidence and consultative examiner's opinions, the ALJ found that Ratliff was unable to perform his past relevant work. [Tr., p. 20] However, based on the VE's testimony, and after considering Ratliff's age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ determined that Ratliff could perform other jobs that exist in the national economy. Specific examples of jobs at the light exertional level include a telephone interview worker, counter kiosk cashier and clerical worker and, at the sedentary level, jobs such as machine monitor, telephone order clerk, and clerical worker. [Tr., pp. 20-21] As a result of this determination, ALJ Meade concluded that Ratliff is not disabled.

II.

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). Second, the claimant must show that he suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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). 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).

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). 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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