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Ricks v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 20, 2018




         Plaintiff Stephaine J. Ricks has filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security that denied his application for disability insurance benefits (DIB). Ricks applied for DIB and SSI on January 21, 2014, alleging that he was disabled as of June 1, 2011, due to gout, polyneuropathy, degenerative joint disease of the hip, degenerative disc disease and PTSD (Tr.23). The Commissioner denied Rick's claims on initial consideration (Tr.98-101) and on reconsideration (Tr. 103-09). Ricks requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (Tr. 110-111).

         ALJ John R. Price conducted a hearing in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 23, 2016 (Tr.36-65). Ricks attended with his representative Kirsten Brown (Tr. 36). Ricks and vocational expert (VE) Linda Jones testified at the hearing (Tr. 40-58, 59-65). Following the conclusion of the hearing, ALJ Price entered a hearing decision on May 24, 2106 that found Ricks is not disabled for the purposes of the Social Security Act (Tr.21-31).

         In his adverse decision, ALJ Price made the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016.

2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2011, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. 404.1571, et seq.).

3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: gout, polyneuropathy, degenerative joint disease of the hip, degenerative disc disease and PTSD (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(c)).

4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526).

5. After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except he can occasionally bend, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, but should not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He should not work around hazards such as unprotected heights. He can perform simple 1-2 step tasks with little-to-no change in work routine from day-to-day. He can have occasional superficial interaction with co-workers and supervisors, but no contact with the public.

6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. 404.1565).

7. The claimant was born on May 24, 1967, and was 44-years-old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 C.F.R. 404.1563).

8. The claimant has at least a high-school education and is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. 404.1564).

9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has transferrable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 2).

10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 C.F.R. 404.1569, 404.1569(a)).

11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 1, 2011, through the date of this decision (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(g)).

(Tr.21-31). Ricks sought review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council (Tr. 17). The Appeals Council denied his request for review, finding no reason under the Rules to review ALJ Price's decision (Tr.1-6). The present lawsuit followed.

         The Five-Step Sequential Evaluation Process.

         Disability is defined by law as being the inability to do substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death, or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. See, 20 CFR §§ 404.1505(a)(4), 416.905(a). To determine whether a claimant for DIB or SSI benefits satisfies such definition, a 5-step evaluation process has been developed. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520, 916.920(a). Miller v. Commissioner, 811 F.3d 825, 834 n. 6 (6th Cir. 2016)(“ The ALJ must engage in a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled.”). At step 1, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the Commissioner will find the claimant to be not disabled. See, 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.971. See, Gayhaeart v. Commissioner, 710 F.3d 365, 374-75 (6th Cir. 2013)(“If claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled.”); Dinkel v. Secretary, 910 F.2d, 315, 318 (6th Cir. 1990).

         If the claimant is not working, then the Commissioner next must determine at step 2 of the evaluation process whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of severe impairments that significantly limit his or her ability to perform basic work activities. See 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Gayheart, 710 F.3d at 374(“If claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity, his impairment must be severe before he can be found to be disabled.”). If the impairments of the claimant are determined by the Commissioner to be non-severe, in other words, so slight that they could not result in a finding of disability irrespective of a claimant's vocational factors, then the claimant will be determined to be not disabled at step 2. See, Rabbers v. Commissioner, 582 F.3d 647, 652 (6th Cir. 2009); Higgs v. Bowen, 880 F.2d 960, 962 (6th Cir. 1988); Gray v. Astrue, 780 F.Supp.2d. 548, 550 (E.D. Ky. 2011)(“ If the claimant is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, does he have any “severe” impairment or combination of impairments-i.e., any impairments significantly limiting his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities? If not, a finding of non-disability is made and the claim is denied.”)

         If the claimant has a severe impairment or impairments, then the Commissioner at step 3 of the process will determine whether such impairments are sufficiently serious to satisfy the listing of impairments found in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Part 404 of the federal regulations. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(A)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); Rabbers, 582 F.3d at 652. The claimant will be determined to be automatically disabled without consideration of his or her age, education or work experience if the claimant's impairments are sufficiently severe to meet or equal the criteria of any impairment listed in the Appendix. See, Combs v. Commissioner, 459 F.3d 640, 642 (6thCir. 2006)(“Claimants are conclusively presumed to be disabled if they suffer from an infirmity that appears on the SSA's special list of impairments, or that is at least equal in severity to those listed.”); Lankford v. Sullivan, 942 F.2d 301, 306 (6th Cir. 1991)(same).

         When the severity of the claimant's impairments does not meet or equal the listings, then the Commissioner must determine at step 4 whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity (RFC) given his or her impairments to permit a return to any of his or her past relevant work. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). See, Wilson v. Commissioner, 378 F.3d 541, 458 (6th Cir. 2004); Smith v. Secretary, 893 F.2d 106, 109-110 (6th Cir. 1989). A claimant who retains the residual functional capacity, despite his or her severe impairments, to perform past relevant work is not disabled. 20 CFR §§ 404.1560(b)(3), 416.960(b)(3). Mackins v. Astrue, 655 F.Supp.2d 770, 776 (W.D. Ky. 2009)(“ The claimant must not be able to perform his past relevant work either as he actually performed it or as it generally performed in the national economy.”).

         The burden switches to the Commissioner at step 5 of the sequential evaluation process to establish that the claimant, who cannot return to his or her past relevant work, remains capable of performing alternative work in the national economy given his or her residual functional capacity, age, education and past relevant work experience. See, 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1560(c), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.960(c); Hensley v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 263, 264 (6th Cir. 2009); Cruse v. Commissioner, 502 F.3d 532, 539 (6th Cir. 2007); Wilson v. Commissioner, 378 F.3d 541, 458 (6th Cir. 2004)(“ If the claimant does . . . [satisfy the initial 4-steps], including establishing that under the claimant's “residual functional capacity the claimant can [not] perform his past relevant work, ” the burden then shifts to the Commissioner [at step 5] to show that “based on the claimant's residual functional capacity, as well as his age, education, and work experience, the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, in which case the claimant is not disabled.”) . Collectively, the above disability evaluation analysis is commonly referred to as the “5-step sequential evaluation process.”

         Standard of Review.

         Review of a decision of the Commissioner is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The statute, and case law that interprets it, require a reviewing court to affirm the findings of the Commissioner if they are supported by substantial evidence and the Commissioner has employed the appropriate legal standard. Cole v. Astrue, 661 F.3d 931, 937 (6th Cir.2011)(“[R]eview is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.'); Walters v. Commissioner of Social Security, 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997) (“This Court must affirm the Commissioner's conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standards or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.); Dennis v. Astrue, 655 F.Supp.2d 746, 749-50 (W.D. Ky. 2009)(same).

         Substantial evidence is defined by the Supreme Court to be “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales,402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Lindsley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 560 F.3d 601, 604 (6th Cir.2009); Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004)(same). See also, Lashley v. Sec'y of HHS, 708 F.2d 1048, 1053 (6th Cir. 1983) (citing Perales). It is more than a mere scintilla of evidence or evidence that merely creates the suspicion of the existence of a fact, but must be ...

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