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Cunningham v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

May 30, 2014

BRENDA CUNNINGHAM, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

Page 27

Re Document Nos.: 9, 10.

For BRENDA CUNNINGHAM, Plaintiff: Stephen F. Shea, ELKIND & SHEA, Silver Spring, MD.

For CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant: Mary Ellen Russell, LEAD ATTORNEY, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Office of the General Counsel, Baltimore, MD.

Page 28

MEMORANDUM OPINION

RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, United States District Judge.

Denying Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal; and Granting Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Brenda Cunningham commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) against Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (" SSA" ), seeking review of the SSA Commissioner's denial of her claims for disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income payments under sections 216(I), 223, and 1611 of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. § § 416(i), 423, 1382. Upon consideration of the motions, the memoranda in support thereof and opposition thereto, and the administrative record, the Court will deny Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal and grant Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance.

II. STATUTORY FRAMEWORK

The Social Security Act establishes a program for providing " disability insurance benefits" to eligible individuals and " supplemental security income to individuals who have attained age 65 or are blind or disabled." See 42 U.S.C. § § 423, 1381, 1381a. The statute defines disability for non-blind individuals as 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[.]" Id. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.905. A claimant is disabled " 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." 42 U.S.C. § § 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). A disabled individual is eligible for Supplemental Security Income payments if he meets additional statutory requirements concerning " income" and " resources." Id. § 1382(a)(1).

Page 29

Within the Social Security Act framework, an Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ) must conduct a five-step sequential evaluation to assess a claimant's alleged disability. See generally 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520, 416.920. First, the ALJ must find that the claimant is not presently engaged in " substantial gainful" work. See id. § § 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). Second, the ALJ must find that the claimant has a " severe impairment" that " significantly limits" his ability to do basic work activities. Id. § § 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Third, if the ALJ finds that the claimant suffers from an impairment that meets one of those listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, the claimant is deemed disabled and the inquiry ends. See id. § § 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If, however, the claimant's impairment does not meet one of those listed in the Appendix, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity based on all evidence in the record. See id. § § 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).

At step four, after making a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's capabilities allow him to perform " past relevant work." Id. § § 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If the claimant's residual functional capacity does not allow him to perform past relevant work, the ALJ moves to step five, during which the ALJ determines whether the claimant's residual functional capacity allows him to adjust to any other work, given his age, education, and work experience. See id. § § 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the ALJ finds that the claimant can either perform past relevant work (at step four) or adjust to any other work (at step five), the ALJ will conclude that the claimant is not disabled. See id. The claimant bears the burden of proof during the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the SSA Commissioner at step five. See Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 997, 359 U.S. App.D.C. 267 (D.C. Cir. 2004).

III. BACKGROUND

At the time of the administrative decision, Plaintiff was a 37 year-old woman who resided in Washington, DC. See Administrative Record (" AR" ), Sept. 4, 2013, ECF No. 7, at 21, 32, 173-74. She has a 10th grade education and no additional training. See id. at 266. Her past work included employment as a cashier, bank teller, and copy clerk. See id. at 45. Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income payments pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on June 17, 2009, and alleged disability on the basis of major depressive disorder and carpal tunnel syndrome. See id. at 11, 173-74, 180-86. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and again upon reconsideration. See id. at 66-69, 72. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, see id. at 80, and the hearing was held on November 7, 2011, during which Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. See id. at 29-49.

The ALJ issued a decision on February 22, 2012, finding that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability insurance benefits or Supplemental Security Income payments. See AR at 23. At step one of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of May 1, 2009. See id. at 13. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, and bipolar disorder were severe impairments. See id. The ALJ also stated, however, that " these impairments did not cause significant limitations in the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities during the period at issue." Id. The ALJ found at step three that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any impairment

Page 30

listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, including the criteria for mental impairments in listing 12.04. See id. at 14. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff has " moderate restriction" in " activities of daily life," as she " takes her medications, bathes and grooms herself, runs errands, shops for groceries, performs household tasks/cleaning, use[s] public transportation, manage[s] her finances, and attends her appointments." Id.

At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform light work, but that she should not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. See AR at 15. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff should avoid exposure to hazardous conditions, such as operating machinery and unprotected heights, and that she must avoid constant handling and repetitive fine manipulation with her upper extremities. See id. at 15, 20. In addition, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has moderate difficulties in daily activities; moderate difficulties in social functioning; and moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace, which limited her to performing unskilled tasks involving no more than occasional contact with coworkers, supervisors, or the public. See id. at 15.

Next, the ALJ determined through the testimony of a vocational expert that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a copy clerk because the job requirements exceeded her residual functional capacity. See id. at 21. After further questioning of the expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform light, unskilled jobs, such as a silverware wrapper or garment presser, that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. See id. at 22. The expert testified that these jobs require more than occasional handling, which the ALJ determined Plaintiff was capable of performing because medical evidence showed that her carpel tunnel syndrome was not as severe as she alleged. Id. Consequently, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. See id. at 23; 42 U.S.C. § § 416, 423. The ALJ also concluded that Plaintiff did not qualify for Supplemental Security Income payments under section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. See AR at 23; 42 U.S.C. § 1382(c).

Following the ALJ's determination, Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. See AR at 6-7. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on February 21, 2013, thus making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the SSA Commissioner. See id. at 1-3. Plaintiff has fully exhausted her ...


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