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Diesa Paris v. Michael J. Astrue

August 29, 2012

DIESA PARIS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gladys Kessler United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff, Diesa Paris, brings this action seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 42 et seq.

This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal [Dkt. No. 8] and Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance [Dkt. No. 10]. Upon consideration of the parties' cross-motions, the administrative record, and the entire record herein, and for the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal is hereby granted in part and denied in part, and Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance is hereby denied.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff is a fifty-year-old woman who resides in Washington, DC. Administrative Record ("AR") at 37, 102-105 [Dkt. No. 3]. She has a high-school education and no specialized training. AR at 38, 136. Plaintiff last worked full time on January 31, 2007 as a retail manager. See AR at 102, 132. She has been diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, psoriatic arthritis, and major depressive order. AR at 15.

As a result of these disorders, Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act on February 25, 2008. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. On April 1, 2010, a hearing regarding Plaintiff's alleged disability was held in front of an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On June 11, 2010, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council to review the decision of the ALJ. On October 3, 2011, the Appeals Council affirmed the decision of the ALJ.

A. Disability Determination Process

In order to qualify for disability insurance benefits, an individual must prove that she has a disability that renders her unable "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment" for a period of "not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1) & (d)(1)(A). The claimant must support her claim of impairment with "[o]bjective medical evidence" that is "established by medically acceptable clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A). In addition, the impairment must be severe enough to prevent the claimant from doing her previous work and work commensurate with her age, education, and work experience that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

The Social Security Administration ("SSA") uses a five-step evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled, thus qualifying for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1). A clear determination of disability or non-disability at any step is definitive, and the process ends at that step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). In the first step, a claimant is disqualified if she is currently engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). In the second step, a claimant is disqualified if she does not have a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment" that is proven "by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508 & 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). In the third step, a claimant qualifies for benefits if her impairment(s) meets or equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, subpart P, appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). Between the third and fourth step, the SSA uses the entire record to make a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which is "the most [the claimant] can still do despite [the] limitations" created by the impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) & 404.1545(a)(1). In the fourth step, a claimant is disqualified if her RFC shows that she is still able to do her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). In the fifth step, a claimant is disqualified if her RFC shows that she is capable of adapting to "other work that exists in the national economy." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) & 404.1545(a)(5)(ii). If the claim survives these five steps, then the claimant is determined disabled and qualifies for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

B. The ALJ's Ruling

The ALJ applied the sequential five-step process described, supra, and determined that, while Plaintiff suffered from severe impairments including depression, psoriatic arthritis, and systemic lupus erythematosus, she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The issues in dispute in this case arise in steps four and five of the assessment process.

At step four of the assessment, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a range of sedentary work so long as she had a "sit/stand option"*fn1 and was limited to unskilled tasks involving no more than occasional contact with the public. AR at 24. At step five of the evaluation process, the ALJ relied on a vocational expert's testimony to determine that Plaintiff "is capable of making a successful adjustment to [] work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy." Id. at 26.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A district court is limited in its review of the SSA's findings to determining whether those findings are based on substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g); Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 999 (D.C. Cir. 2004); Poulin v. Bowen, 817 F.2d 865, 870 (D.C. Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence "means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion," Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation omitted), requiring "more than a scintilla, but ... something ...


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