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Conley v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, Pikeville

April 13, 2015

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 Michael Ray Conley ("Conley" or "the Claimant") and Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"). [Record Nos. 11, 12] For the reasons discussed below, remand for further proceedings is necessary.


On February 21, 2012, Conley filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). [Record No. 9-1, Administrative Transcript, "Tr., " p. 38] He alleges a disability beginning November 10, 2011. [ Id. ] Conley, along with attorney William Arnett and vocational expert ("VE") Dwight McMillian, appeared before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Andrew J. Chwalibog on May 16, 2013, for an administrative hearing. [Tr., pp. 51-72] On June 27, 2013, ALJ Chwalibog determined that Conley was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Act. [Tr., p. 45-46] Conley appealed that determination to the SSA's Appeals Council. However, his appeal was denied on September 15, 2014. [Tr., pp. 1-4]

Conley was 50 years old at the time his alleged disability began on November 10, 2011, and 51 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. He has a high school education and previously worked as a pipefitter. [Tr., p. 44] After considering the testimony presented during the administrative hearing and reviewing the record, ALJ Chwalibog concluded that Conley suffers from the severe impairment of osteoarthritis in multiple joints. [Tr., p. 40] Notwithstanding this impairment, the ALJ concluded that the Claimant maintained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, with the following constraints: "[Conley can] never climb ladders/scaffolds; occasionally climb ramps/stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl; occasional overhead reaching bilaterally; and avoid concentrated exposure to cold, humidity, vibration, and hazards." [Tr., p. 42]

After considering Conley's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that there existed a significant number of jobs in the national economy that he could perform, including grader/sorter, machine operator, bench worker, and hand packer. [Tr., p. 45] Thus, the ALJ determined that Conley was not disabled from November 10, 2011, through the date of the administrative hearing. [Tr., pp. 45-46]


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 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. 1993). In other words, the Commissioner's findings are conclusive if they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


Conley contends that the ALJ failed to give adequate reasons for discounting the opinion of treating physician Dr. Ira B. Potter. [Record No. 11-1, pp. 6-9] Further, he asserts that the ALJ erred in relying upon the opinion of non-examining physician Dr. Jack Reed although he was ...

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