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Miniard v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 21, 2017




         This matter is before the Court for consideration of cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff Nancy Miniard and Defendant Commissioner of Social Security. (DE 11 & 12). Miniard brought this action under Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of the final decision of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), as provided under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). The Court, having reviewed the record, will reverse the Commissioner's decision and remand this matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


         To determine whether a claimant has a compensable disability under the Social Security Act, the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) applies a five-step sequential process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1), (4); see also Miller v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 81 F.3d 825, 835 n.6 (6th Cir. 2016) (describing the five-step evaluation process). The five steps, in summary, are:

Step 1: If the claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, the claimant is not disabled.
Step 2: If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment-i.e., an impairment that significantly limits his or her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities-the claimant is not disabled.
Step 3: If the claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity and is suffering from a severe impairment that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months, and his or her impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, the claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry.
Step 4: If the claimant's impairment does not prevent him or her from doing his or her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled.
Step 5: If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the claimant is disabled.

Sorrell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 656 Fed. App'x. 162, 169 (6th Cir. 2016) (citing Rabbers v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 582 F.3d 647, 652 (6th Cir. 2009)).

         If, at any step in the process, the ALJ concludes that the claimant is or is not disabled, the ALJ can then complete the “determination or decision and [the ALJ] do[es] not go on to the next step.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). In the first four steps of the process the claimant bears the burden of proof. Sorrell, 656 Fed. App'x. at 169 (quoting Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003)). If the claim proceeds to step five, however, “the burden shifts to the Commissioner to identify a significant number of jobs in the economy that accommodate the claimant's residual functional capacity . . . and vocational profile.” Id. (internal citations omitted); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1).


         A. Factual Background

         Nancy Miniard was born in 1962. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 29). She graduated from high school and completed four years of college, but did not obtain a postsecondary degree. (AR 31). Miniard does have vocational training in the fields of welding and pneumatics. (AR 31). She has never been married, does not have children, and lives alone with her dog in her family's farm house. (AR 30-31). Before she allegedly became disabled, Miniard worked as a forklift driver, punch press operator, and a maintenance repairer/helper. (AR 57). Her last date of reported work was October 1st, 2001 (according to her hearing testimony) or January 2002 (according to her SSI application). (AR 32, 215).

         Miniard applied for Disability Insurance Benefits and Social Security Income on February 25, 2013, alleging that she became disabled for over a decade prior to her filing, with an onset date of June 1, 2004 (according to her SSI application) or October 1, 2001 (according to her DIB application). (AR 192, 198). In her original benefits application, Miniard alleged that she was unable to work due to a combination of a bulging disc in her back, right should and leg pain, trouble sleeping, and headaches. (AR 214). Miniard's application was denied initially and on reconsideration (AR 86, 88, 112). Miniard then filed a timely request for a hearing before an ALJ. (AR 143-44).

         ALJ Robert Bowling conducted a hearing in Hazard, Kentucky on September 20, 2014. (AR 26). Miniard attended the hearing, accompanied by her lawyer and testified on her own behalf. Linda Koffler, [1] an impartial vocational expert, also appeared and testified via telephone. (AR 26, 31). After the hearing and reviewing Miniard's claims de novo, the ALJ entered a written decision denying benefits on December 17, 2014. (AR 11-21). That decision is the subject of this appeal.

         B. The Administrative Decision

         The ALJ applied the traditional five-step sequential analysis promulgated by the Commissioner, see 20 C.F.R § 404.1520, and found that Miniard's claim failed at step five. At step one, the ALJ found that Miniard had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2001, the earlier of her alleged disability onset date. (AR 13). At step two, the ALJ found that Miniard suffered from several severe impairments: (1) disorders of the joints; (2) disorders of the spine; (3) affective disorders; and (4) anxiety disorders. (AR 14).

         At step three, the ALJ found that Miniard's severe impairments did not meet and were not medically equal in severity to one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ found that Miniard's joint and spine disorders did not meet listing 1.02 or 1.04 because the record did not contain evidence of “nerve root compression characterized by motor loss . . . pseudoclaudication, inability to ambulate effectively, or inability to perform fine and gross movements.” (AR 14); see 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart. P, App. 1 § 1.00 (2012).[2] The ALJ also found that Miniard's mental impairments did not meet listing 12.04 or 12.06 because she only experienced moderate restrictions in daily living, social functioning, and maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace, and she had no episodes of decompensation-meaning periods of exacerbated symptoms. (AR 14-15); see 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart. P, App. 1 § 12.00A.

         Before reaching step four, the ALJ determined Miniard's residual functional capacity (RFC). The ALJ found that Miniard retained, based on all of her impairments, the RFC:

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) but can stand and walk for only 6 hours total in an 8-hour workday; claimant can sit for only 6 hours total in an 8-hour workday; claimant requires a sit or stand option on a 30 minute basis; claimant can only occasionally push or pull with the right upper extremity claimant can never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds; claimant can only occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; claimant can only occasionally reach overhead with the right upper extremity; claimant can only frequently handle, that is, gross manipulation with the right hand; claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights and the use of moving machinery; work is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks performed in a work environment free of fast paced production requirements involving only simple, work-related decisions and with few, if any, work place changes; and claimant should have only occasional interaction with the general public, only occasional interaction with co-workers and only occasional supervision.

(AR 15). Moving to step four, the ALJ, based on the vocational expert's testimony, found Miniard was unable to perform any of ...

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