597 F.3d 392 (6th Cir. 2010), 08-5830, Wright-Hines v. Commissioner of Social Sec.

Docket Nº:08-5830.
Citation:597 F.3d 392
Opinion Judge:ZOUHARY, District Judge.
Party Name:Angela WRIGHT-HINES, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant-Appellee.
Attorney:Janice E. Barnes-Williams, Office of the General Counsel, Social Security Administration, Kansas City, Missouri, for Appellee. Angela Wright-Hines, Memphis, Tennessee, pro se.
Judge Panel:Before: MARTIN and WHITE, Circuit Judges; ZOUHARY, District Judge. [*] ZOUHARY, D.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which MARTIN, J., joined. WHITE, J., (pp. 397-98), delivered a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. HELENE N. WHITE, Circuit Judge, concurring and di...
Case Date:February 23, 2010
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

Page 392

597 F.3d 392 (6th Cir. 2010)

Angela WRIGHT-HINES, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 08-5830.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

February 23, 2010

Submitted: Jan. 13, 2010.

Page 393

ON BRIEF:

Janice E. Barnes-Williams, Office of the General Counsel, Social Security Administration, Kansas City, Missouri, for Appellee.

Angela

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Wright-Hines, Memphis, Tennessee, pro se.

Before: MARTIN and WHITE, Circuit Judges; ZOUHARY, District Judge. [*]

ZOUHARY, D.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which MARTIN, J., joined. WHITE, J., (pp. 397-98), delivered a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

OPINION

ZOUHARY, District Judge.

Pro se appellant Angela Wright-Hines appeals from the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of her claims for supplemental security income (SSI) and disability insurance benefits (DIB). The ALJ found Wright-Hines was not disabled because her residual functional capacity allowed her to perform past relevant work as a cashier. The district court adopted the magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation (R & R) and upheld the decision of the ALJ.

Liberally construed, Wright-Hines' appeal raises four arguments: (1) the Vocational Expert (VE) relied on by the ALJ had prior contact with Wright-Hines, and the VE's testimony was therefore improper; (2) the ALJ's hypothetical question to the VE failed to include all of Wright-Hines' physical limitations; (3) there was no evidence that Wright-Hines had performed past work as a cashier for more than three months; and (4) the district court erred in denying Wright-Hines' motion for default judgment. We affirm.

BACKGROUND

In April and May 2004, Wright-Hines applied for SSI and DIB, alleging she became disabled on December 31, 2002. Her claims were denied, and she appeared at a hearing before an ALJ on May 3, 2006. She was represented by counsel at the hearing. The ALJ issued an opinion upholding the denial of benefits on November 14, 2006.

The ALJ used the familiar five-step disability analysis provided by the social security regulations. At step one, the ALJ determined that Wright-Hines had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 31, 2002. At step two, the ALJ found that Wright-Hines suffered from the following " severe impairments" : herniated nucleus pulposus, chronic pain syndrome, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, paranoid schizophrenia, depressive disorder, and cocaine abuse. At step three, the ALJ found that Wright-Hines did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met listed regulatory criteria.

The ALJ then defined Wright-Hines' residual functional capacity (RFC):

[Wright-Hines] has the residual functional capacity to lift 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently as well as stand, walk, or sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. She also has nonexertional postural limitations that restrict her to occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. Additionally, she has nonexertional mental limitations that restrict her to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple and low-level detailed job instructions.

(ROA 21).

At step four, the ALJ determined that Wright-Hines' RFC allowed her to perform past relevant work as a cashier. The ALJ noted that " [w]ork as a cashier requires

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sustained unskilled work activity at the light exertional level." The ALJ also noted that " [t]his conclusion is consistent with the longitudinal record, including the assessment from Rebecca Allen, a State agency vocational expert." The state VE's assessment was part of the written record, and it listed " cashier" as a " past relevant occupation." However, Wright-Hines did not testify about her previous work as a cashier during the hearing before the ALJ, nor was she asked about her cashier position. Nevertheless, based on the conclusion that Wright-Hines was capable of working as a cashier, the ALJ found that Wright-Hines was not disabled. The ALJ did not reach step five of the analysis.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Our review is limited to whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence. Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir.2009). We must affirm the ALJ's decision if his findings and inferences are reasonably drawn from the record or supported by substantial evidence even if that evidence could support a contrary decision. Id. at 406.

DISCUSSION

VE's Prior Contact With Claimant

Wright-Hines argues the ALJ erred in relying on the testimony of a state VE who had prior contact with Wright-Hines. The premise of this argument is mistaken, as the ALJ never presented a hypothetical question to the VE or heard any other testimony from the VE. Rather, the ALJ noted that a written report from the VE was consistent with his conclusion that Wright-Hines was capable of performing past relevant work as a cashier. Moreover, the ALJ was not required to solicit testimony from a VE in reaching his conclusion. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(2) (" We may use the services of vocational experts ... to help us determine whether you can do your past relevant work [.]" ) (emphasis added); see also Griffeth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 217 Fed.Appx. 425, 429 (6th Cir.2007) (" The regulations permit an ALJ to use the services of a vocational expert at step four to determine whether a claimant can do his past relevant work, given his RFC." ) (emphasis added). Thus, Wright-Hines' argument is unavailing.

Hypothetical Question to VE

Wright-Hines next argues the ALJ's hypothetical question to the VE did not include all of her relevant limitations. Specifically, she argues the hypothetical failed to mention her carpal tunnel syndrome. Again, the premise of this argument is mistaken, because the ALJ never posed a hypothetical question to the VE, nor was he required to do so.

Past Relevant Work as Cashier

Wright-Hines claims her work as a cashier lasted only two to three months, which is too short to qualify as past relevant work. Wright-Hines does not cite any supporting legal authority, but she may be relying on the " unsuccessful work attempt" provision of the regulations, which provides that some jobs of short duration will not be considered past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1574(c); see also Carreno v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 99 Fed.Appx. 594, 596 (6th Cir.2004) (applying the " unsuccessful work attempt" regulation). Generally, " past relevant work" is defined as " work that you have done within the past 15 years, that was substantial gainful activity, and that lasted long enough for you to learn to do it." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(1). " Substantial gainful activity" is in turn defined as work that involves " significant physical or mental

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activities" done for " pay or profit." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a)-(b).

We conclude the ALJ's determination that Wright-Hines had past relevant work as a cashier was supported by substantial evidence. Two independent sources in the written record support such a finding: the Social Security Administration's Explanation of Decision, which states " You performed the job of cashier for 3 month(s). Based on your description of this job, we concluded that you are able to perform it" (AR 32); and a Vocational Assessment from the Tennessee Department of Human Services, which lists " cashier" as a " past relevant occupation" (AR 50). In addition, a medical consultation report notes that Wright-Hines had worked as a cashier, though it does not...

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