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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

January 15, 2015

MICHELLE LEE SMITH, Plaintiff.
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

HARWELL G. DAVIS, III, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the undersigned U.S. Magistrate Judge based on the consent of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Plaintiff, Michelle Lee Smith, filed for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB) on November 23, 2010, alleging she became disabled on August 31, 2010. (Tr. 52, 121-22). Her application was denied. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Following this hearing (Tr. 29-51), the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on June 6, 2012, finding plaintiff was not disabled from August 31, 2010, through the date of his decision. (Tr. 19-25). The Appeals Council denied review. (Tr. 1-6, 14). Consequently, the Commissioner's decision is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

I. ALJ Decision

Disability under the Act is determined under a five-step test. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). "Substantial work activity" is work that involves doing significant physical or mental activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a). "Gainful work activity" is work that is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or a combination of medical impairments that significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Absent such impairment, the claimant may not claim disability. Id. Third, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or medically equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526. If such criteria are met, the claimant is declared disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

If the claimant does not fulfill the requirements necessary to be declared disabled under the third step, the ALJ may still find disability under the next two steps of the analysis. The ALJ first must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), which refers to the claimant's ability to work despite his impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). In the fourth step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has the RFC to perform past relevant work, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is determined to be capable of performing past relevant work, then the claimant is deemed not disabled. Id. If the ALJ finds that the claimant is unable to perform past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). In the last part of the analysis, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is able to perform any other work commensurate with his RFC, age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). Here, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the ALJ to prove the existence in significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can do given the RFC, age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and 404.1560(c).

At Step One, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial employment since August 31, 2010, the alleged onset date. The ALJ further found, at Step Two, that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the knees, right hip replacement pain relating to a motor vehicle accident, and obesity. (Tr. 21). Although he found that plaintiff's degenerative disc disease of the knees was severe, he found that her impairment caused by her recent knee replacement surgery was non-severe because its effect on her ability to perform basic work activities is not expected to persist beyond 12 months. (Tr. 22). He also found that plaintiff had a non-severe mental impairment of depression. ( Id. ).

At Step Three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did 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 and 404.1526). (Tr. 23).

The ALJ then reported that, after a careful consideration of the entire record, he found that plaintiff has the RFC to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). That regulation states:

Light work. Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds. Even though the weight lifted may be very little, a job is in this category when it requires a good deal of walking or standing, or when it involves sitting most of the time with some pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls. To be considered capable of performing a full or wide range of light work, you must have the ability to do substantially all of these activities. If someone can do light work, we determine that he or she can also do sedentary work, unless there are additional limiting factors such as loss of fine dexterity or inability to sit for long periods of time.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b).

At Step Four, the ALJ determined, based on testimony from a vocational expert (VE) that plaintiff had past relevant work as a dry cleaner attendant and that this work was semi-skilled work performed at the light level of exertion. Thus, he found she is able to perform past relevant work and is, therefore, not disabled. (Tr. 25).

II. Plaintiff's Argument for Reversal

Plaintiff asserts that the final decision of the Social Security Administration in denying her benefits is not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, plaintiff alleges that the ALJ's RFC findings are not based on substantial evidence. She states that the ALJ erred in finding her status after her most recent knee surgery to be a ...


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