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Ruth Strawder v. Michael J. Astrue

December 15, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary R. Jones United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff appeals to this Court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1.) The Commissioner has answered (Doc. 7), and both parties have filed briefs outlining their respective positions. (Docs. 10 & 13.) The parties have consented to have the undersigned, a U.S. Magistrate Judge, conduct all proceedings in this case. (Docs. 11, 12.) For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


Plaintiff protectively filed an application for benefits on May 9, 2007, alleging a disability onset date of January 11, 2007 due to carpal tunnel syndrome. (R. 32, 80-84.) These applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 32, 25-46, 115-118, 128-131.) Plaintiff timely pursued her administrative remedies available before the Commissioner and requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") (R. 51.) A hearing was held before ALJ Deborah A. Arnold on December 7, 2009, and the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claims in a decision dated February 16, 2010. (R. 29-41.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on September 20, 2010, rendering the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. (R. 1-3.) On November 4, 2010, Plaintiff filed the instant appeal to this Court. (Doc. 1.)


The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence.*fn1 Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, i.e., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact, and must include such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the conclusion.*fn2

Where the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the district court will affirm, even if the reviewer would have reached a contrary result as finder of fact, and even if the reviewer finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision.*fn3 The district court must view the evidence as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision.*fn4

However, the district court will reverse the Commissioner's decision on plenary review if the decision applies incorrect law, or if the decision fails to provide the district court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law.*fn5

The law defines disability as the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death, or has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.*fn6 The impairment must be severe, making Plaintiff unable to do his previous work, or any other substantial gainful activity which exists in the national economy.*fn7

The ALJ must follow five steps in evaluating a claim of disability.*fn8 First, if a claimant is working at a substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled.*fn9 Second, if a claimant does not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limit his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, then he does not have a severe impairment and is not disabled.*fn10 Third, if a claimant's impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, he is disabled.*fn11 Fourth, if a claimant's impairments do not prevent him from doing past relevant work, he is not disabled.*fn12 Fifth, if a claimant's impairments (considering his residual functional capacity ("RFC"), age, education, and past work) prevent him from doing other work that exists in the national economy, then he is disabled.*fn13

The burden of proof regarding the plaintiff's inability to perform past relevant work initially lies with the plaintiff.*fn14 The burden then temporarily shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that "other work" which the claimant can perform currently exists in the national economy.*fn15 The Commissioner may satisfy this burden by pointing to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the "Grids") for a conclusive determination that a claimant is disabled or not disabled.*fn16

However, the ALJ should not exclusively rely on the Grids when "the claimant has a non-exertional impairment which significantly limits his or her basic work skills or when the claimant cannot perform a full range of employment at the appropriate level of exertion."*fn17 In a situation where both exertional and non-exertional impairments are found, the ALJ is obligated to make specific findings as to whether they preclude a wide range of employment.*fn18

The ALJ may use the Grids as a framework to evaluate vocational factors so long as he introduces independent evidence of the existence of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform.*fn19 Such independent evidence may be introduced by a Vocational Expert's ("VE") testimony, but this is not the exclusive means of introducing such evidence.*fn20 Only after the Commissioner meets this burden does the burden shift back to the claimant to show that he or she is not capable of performing the "other work" as set forth by the Commissioner.


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