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Green v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division

March 28, 2017

GREGORY S. GREEN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Thomas B. Russell, Senior Judge

         Gregory S. Green filed this lawsuit against the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Green challenges the Commissioner's decision to deny him disability insurance benefits. For following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED, and Green's action is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

         I.

         In January 2013, Green applied for disability insurance benefits. [A.R. at 165.] Originally, he alleged disability beginning on February 6, 2012. [Id.] He later amended his claim to allege disability beginning on November 7, 2013. [Id. at 184.] The Commissioner denied Green's claims on initial review and on reconsideration. [Id. at 88, 116.] Green requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. [Id. at 120.] On July 14, 2014, Green appeared, with counsel, at a hearing before an ALJ. [Id. at 30.] Both Green and Sharon B. Lane, a vocational expert, testified. [Id. at 34-72.]

         The ALJ denied Green's claim. [Id. at 11.] Using the traditional five-step evaluation for disability benefits, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ made the following findings. First, the ALJ found that Green had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 7, 2013. [Id. at 16.] Second, Green has several severe impairments, including “degenerative joint disease of the knees, shoulders, right foot, right ankle, hands and wrists; bursitis of the hips; degenerative joint disease/tendonitis of the elbows; history of carpal tunnel syndrome; degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine and sleep apnea.” [Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)).] Third, the ALJ found that Green's impairments do not meet or equal one of the Commissioner's recognized impairments. [Id. at 18.] Fourth, the ALJ found that Green has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work. [Id. at 19-20.] Having found Green capable of performing past relevant work as a human resource specialist, the ALJ did not reach the fifth step, but instead determined that Green is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. [Id. at 24-25.]

         The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision. [Id. at 1.] Accordingly, the ALJ's denial became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 543-44 (6th Cir. 2004) (citing Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1399 (11th Cir. 1996)). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Green brought this action to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. [See R. 1 (Complaint).] He asks the Court to reverse the ALJ's decision. [See R. 13 (Motion for Summary Judgment).] The Commissioner opposes that motion. [See R. 18 (Response).]

         II.

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's determination is deferential. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009). The scope of that inquiry is limited to (1) “whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence” and (2) “whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.” Miller v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 811 F.3d 825, 833 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting Blakley, 581 F.3d at 405-06). “Substantial evidence” means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lindsley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 560 F.3d 601, 604 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Even if supported by substantial evidence, however, “a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the [Social Security Administration] fails to follow its own regulations and where that error prejudices a claimant on the merits or deprives the claimant of a substantial right.” Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007)).

         III.

         As previewed above, the Commissioner evaluates whether a claimant is disabled through a sequential five-step process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1), (4); see also Sullivan v. Finkelstein, 496 U.S. 617, 620 (1990). The claimant has the burden of proof during the first four of those steps. Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). If the claimant meets the burden at step four, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Rabbers, 582 F.3d at 652. Step four is at issue in this case.

         There, the ALJ considers the claimant's residual functional capacity and past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). Residual functional capacity is the claimant's “remaining capacity for work once [his] limitations have been taken into account.” Webb v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 368 F.3d 629, 632 (6th Cir. 2004) (quoting Howard v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 276 F.3d 235, 240 (6th Cir. 2002)). In determining whether a claimant can perform his past relevant work, the Commissioner may consult a vocational expert who “may offer relevant evidence within his or her expertise or knowledge concerning the physical and mental demands of a claimant's past relevant work, either as the claimant actually performed it or as generally performed in the national economy.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(2). It is the claimant's burden to cross-examine a vocational expert. See McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 837 (6th Cir. 2006). Once a vocational expert testifies that there is no conflict between the Dictionary of Occupational Titles and the vocational expert's opinion, the ALJ has no duty to cross-examine the vocational expert any further. Lindsley, 560 F.3d at 606.

         In this case, Green objects to the ALJ's step-four findings. [R. 13-1 at 2 (Memorandum in Support).] He raises three arguments. [Id. at 2-8.] The Court will address each in turn.

         A.

         To begin, Green takes issue with the ALJ's finding that he is capable of performing his past relevant work as a human resource specialist as that job is “generally performed in the national economy, ” instead of treating his position as a “composite job.” [Id. at 3-5.] A “composite job” is a job that has “significant elements of two or more occupations and, as such, have no counterpart” in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. SSR 82-61, 1982 WL 31387, at *2 (Jan. 1, 1982). Green argues that the ALJ may not, per the Commissioner's guidance, deny a claim at step four by finding that a claimant remains capable of performing a composite job ...


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