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Christopher Callahan v. Michael J. Astrue

May 9, 2011

CHRISTOPHER CALLAHAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina United States District Judge

Re Document Nos.: 20, 24

MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING THE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT OF REVERSAL; DENYING THE COMMISSIONER'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT OF AFFIRMANCE

I. INTRODUCTION

The plaintiff, Christopher Callahan, commenced this action against the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), seeking to overturn the Commissioner's decision to deny him disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits under the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 301 et seq. Specifically, the plaintiff challenges the Commissioner's decision to affirm a ruling by an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), who determined that the plaintiff was not "disabled" for purposes of the Act because his impairments permitted him to perform several jobs that exist in the national economy.

This matter is now before the court on the plaintiff's motion for judgment of reversal of the Commissioner's decision and the Commissioner's motion for judgment of affirmance. The plaintiff argues that because the ALJ failed to address and explain a conflict between the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE") and information provided in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") published by the Department of Labor, the Commissioner's decision to affirm the ALJ's ruling was not based on substantial evidence. Conversely, the Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence and should not be disturbed by this court.

Having reviewed the parties' submissions and the entire record, the court concludes that the ALJ decision adopted by the Commissioner was not supported by substantial evidence. The court therefore grants the plaintiff's motion for judgment of reversal, denies the Commissioner's motion for judgment of affirmance and remands this matter to the Social Security Administration ("SSA") for further proceedings.

II. FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

A. Legal Framework for ALJ Review of Social Security Disability Claims

To become eligible for disability insurance benefits under the Act, a claimant must: (1) meet insured status requirements;*fn1 (2) file an application for the benefits; and (3) suffer from a "disability." 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). The Act defines the term "disability" to mean "[the] inability to engage in any 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." *fn2 Id. § 423(d)(1)(A). In addition, the Act provides that [a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. For purposes of the preceding sentence (with respect to any individual), "work which exists in the national economy" means work which exists in significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.

Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Act, an ALJ must conduct a five-step inquiry. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Specifically, an ALJ must evaluate whether:

(1) the claimant is "presently engaged in substantial gainful activity"; (2) the claimant has a "medically severe impairment or impairments"; (3) the claimant's impairment is equivalent to one of the impairments listed in the appendix of the relevant disability regulation; (4) the impairment prevents the claimant from performing his or her past relevant work; and (5) the claimant, in light of his or her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity ("RFC"),*fn3 can still perform another job that is available in the national economy. Allen v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1140, 1142 (10th Cir. 2004) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). Through the first four steps of this inquiry, the claimant bears the burden of proof. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). At step five, however, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to identify specific jobs sufficiently available in the national economy that the claimant can perform. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v); see also Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5 ("It is true . . . that the [Commissioner] bears the burden of proof at step five, which determines whether the claimant is able to perform work available in the national economy.").

In determining whether an individual can still perform another job that is available in the national economy, the Commissioner may consult the Medical-Vocational Guidelines set forth in the appendices of SSA regulations. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404 Subpart P §§ 201.00-04.00. These guidelines evaluate a claimant's disability in light of his or her age, education, work experience and RFC to perform "sedentary," "light," "medium" or "heavy" work. Id. The regulations, however, make clear that "[s]ince the [guidelines] are predicated on an individual's having an impairment which manifests itself by [physical or 'exertional' limitations], they may not be fully applicable where the nature of an individual's impairment does not result in such [exertional] impairments" but in "non-exertional" impairments. Id. § 200.00(e). Non-exertional impairments include "mental impairments" and "environmental restrictions," such as an inability to tolerate dust or fumes. Id.

If a claimant's RFC includes non-exertional limitations that preclude the application of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, the Commissioner may choose to consult a VE. 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1566(e). Specifically, the applicable regulations provide that the Commissioner may consult a VE when "the issue in determining whether [a claimant is] disabled is whether [his or her] work skills can be used in other work and the specific occupations in which they can be used, or there is a similarly complex issue." Id; but see Luna v. Shalala, 22 F.3d 687, 691 (7th Cir. 1994) (stating that the ...


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