United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, Ashland
MEMORANDUM OPINION &
DAVID L. BUNNING, District Judge.
This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's and Defendant's cross-motions for summary judgment. (Docs. # 12 & 16). For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant Defendant's motion, deny Plaintiff's motion, and affirm the Social Security Administration's decision.
II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL SUMMARY
Gregory Lee Ison is a resident of Sandy Hook, Kentucky. (Doc. # 8-1, at 45). Born in 1962, Mr. Ison largely dropped out of the labor force in 2007, when he began building garages part time. ( Id. at 44). That activity earned only $400 per month, and Mr. Ison eventually gave it up because he "couldn't do it." ( Id. at 46). Before then, he worked in various jobs, including welding, pipe fitting, and equipment installation. ( Id. at 49). Mr. Ison stopped working, he claims, primarily because of back pain and high blood pressure, though he also suffers from other problems. ( Id. at 50).
On May 8, 2009, Mr. Ison applied for disability, disability insurance, and supplemental security income benefits. ( Id. at 24). That application was denied initially and after reconsideration. ( Id. ) Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). ( Id. ) That hearing was held on March 1, 2012, before ALJ Brian LeCours, in Huntington, WV. ( Id. ) At the hearing, ALJ LeCours interviewed the Plaintiff regarding his ailments, his work history, and his disability application. ( Id. at 40-66). The ALJ also interviewed agency vocational expert (VE) Dwight McMillion. ( Id. at 68-80).
ALJ LeCours issued his written opinion on May 14, 2012, denying Mr. Ison's disability claims. While the ALJ found that Mr. Ison did suffer from some severe ailments, none of those ailments proved debilitating. ( Id. at 22-26). Mr. Ison maintained the ability to do light work, so long as he didn't have to carry heavy objects. ( Id. ) ALJ LeCours concluded, based on the testimony of the VE, that enough jobs existed in the national economy that could accommodate Mr. Ison's ailments. ( Id. )
Unsatisfied with the ALJ's written opinion, Mr. Ison asked the agency's Appeals Council to overrule ALJ LeCours's written opinion, which it declined to do in a June 19, 2013 letter. ( Id. at 6). Mr. Ison then appealed the agency's decision to this Court. (Doc. # 1).
A. Standard of Review
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). Even if the Court might have decided an issue otherwise, it will defer to the agency so long as the agency's decision was supported by substantial evidence. Interpretations of statutes and agency regulations, on the other hand, 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).
B. The Five-Step Sequential Analysis 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). First, the ALJ determines whether the applicant is gainfully employed. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If so, the disability application fails; if not, the ALJ proceeds to step two and determines whether the claimant suffers from any severe physical or mental impairments. Id . at § 1520(c). Assuming the answer is yes, the ALJ then considers, at the third step, whether the applicant's impairments are among those listed in Social Security regulations (or equivalent to those listed), such that the applicant is presumed disabled. Id . at § 1520(d).
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 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 evaluates whether enough of that work exists in the national economy to preclude an award of disability benefits. Id . at § ...