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Justice v. Colvin

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

March 23, 2015

RUBY JUSTICE, Plaintiff,
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 filed by Plaintiff Ruby Justice ("Justice" or "the Claimant") and Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"). [Record Nos. 16, 17] Justice argues that the decision of the administrative law judge ("ALJ") assigned to her case was not supported by substantial evidence and that the ALJ erred by relying on the testimony of the vocational expert ("VE") in determining that she could perform other work in the national economy. Conversely, the Commissioner contends that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. For the reasons discussed below, remand for further proceedings is necessary.


On August 5, 2011, Justice filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act. [Record No. 8-1, Administrative Transcript, "Tr., " p. 11] She alleges a disability beginning February 18, 2011.[1] [ Id. ] Justice, along with attorney Robert Cornett and VE Betty Hale, appeared before ALJ Karen R. Jackson on January 15, 2013, for an administrative hearing. [Tr., pp. 25-51] On February 4, 2013, the ALJ found that Justice was not disabled under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Act. [Tr., p. 20] Justice appealed with the SSA's Appeals Council. However, this appeal was denied on May 9, 2014. [Tr., pp. 1-3]

Justice was 45 years old when her alleged disability began on February 18, 2011, and 47 years old at the time of ALJ Jackson's decision. She has a high school education and previously worked as a fast food cashier and general office clerk. [Tr., p. 19] After considering the testimony presented during the administrative hearing and reviewing the record, the ALJ concluded that Justice suffers from severe impairments including: chronic neck pain secondary to mild scoliosis; chronic back pain secondary to degenerative disc disease, lumbar spine; migraine headaches; history of left knee pain secondary to meniscal tear; mood disorder, not otherwise specified ("NOS"); anxiety disorder, NOS; personality disorder, NOS with dependent and borderline traits; and alcohol dependence, in full sustained remission. [Tr., pp. 13-14] Notwithstanding these individual impairments, the ALJ concluded that the Claimant maintained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform less than the full range of light work, with the following parameters:

[Justice can] lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently; stand or walk six hours in an eight-hour workday; sit six hours in an eight-hour workday; occasionally push or pull with bilateral upper extremities; occasionally balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching; never crawl; frequently overhead reaching with bilateral upper extremities; simple routine tasks; can sustain attention for simple tasks for two-hour segments over an eight-hour workday; can tolerate contact with supervisors and coworkers as needed with occasional contact with general public; can adapt to situational changes and pressure of a routine setting; should avoid hazards such as unprotected heights or dangerous machinery; no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds.

[Tr., p. 15]

After considering Justice's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she could perform, including inspecting, grading/sorting, and handpacking. [Tr., p. 20] Thus, the ALJ determined that Justice was not disabled from February 18, 2011, through the date of the administrative hearing. [ Id. ]


Under the Social Security 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).

A claimant must first demonstrate that she 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 she 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, she 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 she can perform his past work. If she can, she 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 her from doing past work, the Commissioner will consider his RFC, age, education, and past work experience to determine whether she can perform other work. If she 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.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 ...

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