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Valentin v. Commissioner of Social Security

March 11, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Joseph G. Scoville


This is a social security action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that plaintiff was not entitled to disability insurance benefits (DIB). On November 8, 2005, plaintiff filed her application for DIB benefits claiming a December 1, 2004 onset of disability. (A.R. 58-60). Plaintiff's claim was denied on initial review. (A.R. 24, 49-52). On March 12, 2008, plaintiff received a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), at which she was represented by counsel. (A.R. 482-534). On August 12, 2008, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled. (A.R. 14-23). On February 5, 2009, the Appeals Council denied review (A.R. 5-7), and the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision.

On March 18, 2009, plaintiff filed her complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for DIB benefits. The parties have voluntarily consented under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to the dispositive jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge. (docket # 7). The issues raised by plaintiff are as follows:

1. The ALJ erroneously discounted plaintiff's mental limitations; and

2. The ALJ lacked valid reasons to reject plaintiff's reported limitations. (Statement of Errors, Plf. Brief at 2, docket # 8). Upon review, the court finds that plaintiff's arguments do not provide a basis for disturbing the Commissioner's decision. The Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.

Standard of Review

When reviewing the grant or denial of social security benefits, this court is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner correctly applied the law. See Elam ex rel. Golay v. Commissioner, 348 F.3d 124, 125 (6th Cir. 2003); Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 772 (6th Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence is defined as "'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Heston v. Commissioner, 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)); see Rogers v. Commissioner, 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). The scope of the court's review is limited. Buxton, 246 F.3d at 772. The court does not review the evidence de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence, or make credibility determinations. See Walters v. Commissioner, 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). "The findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact if supported by substantial evidence shall be conclusive . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see McClanahan v. Commissioner, 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006). "The findings of the Commissioner are not subject to reversal merely because there exists in the record substantial evidence to support a different conclusion. . . . This is so because there is a 'zone of choice' within which the Commissioner can act without fear of court interference." Buxton, 246 F.3d at 772-73. "If supported by substantial evidence, the [Commissioner's] determination must stand regardless of whether the reviewing court would resolve the issues of fact in dispute differently." Bogle v. Sullivan, 998 F.2d 342, 347 (6th Cir. 1993); see Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 780, 782 (6th Cir. 1996) ("[E]ven if the district court -- had it been in the position of the ALJ -- would have decided the matter differently than the ALJ did, and even if substantial evidence also would have supported a finding other than the one the ALJ made, the district court erred in reversing the ALJ."). "[T]he Commissioner's decision cannot be overturned if substantial evidence, or even a preponderance of the evidence supports the claimant's position, so long as substantial evidence also supports the conclusion reached by the ALJ." Jones v. Commissioner, 336 F.3d 469, 477 (6th Cir. 2003); see Warner v. Commissioner, 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004).


The ALJ found that plaintiff met the disability insured requirement of the Social Security Act from her alleged onset of disability of December 1, 2004, through the date of the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity on or after December 1, 2004. (A.R. 16). The ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairment of cervical spondylosis. (A.R. 16). She did not have an impairment or combination of impairments which met or equaled the requirements of the listing of impairments. (A.R. 18). The ALJ found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) for a limited range of light work:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b).

The claimant could lift and/or carry no more than 20 pounds as documented in Exhibit 5F, p.1 [A.R. 200]; and in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks, she could stand and/or walk for a total of about 6 hours, could sit for a total of about 6 hours, and could do unlimited pushing and/or pulling within light exertional levels. She could frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; could occasionally climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; and could occasionally crawl. The claimant would have no environmental restrictions. She can speak English[,] but would be unable to engage in work requiring reading instructions or writing reports in English. (A.R. 19). The ALJ determined that plaintiff's subjective complaints were not fully credible:

The claimant alleged disability due to pain in the cervical spine, degenerative narrowing of the disc, [a] problem with the right arm (Exhibit 7E)[A.R. 105] and problems with right shoulder and right upper extremity, cervical spine and left hip (Exhibit 11 E)[A.R. 127]. She stated that Dr. Sak, her family doctor, took her off work;*fn1 that he restricted her lifting to no more than 10 pounds and nothing over the shoulder and no gripping with her right hand. She stated that she worked in a light duty job for approximately 1 month and was awarded Worker's Compensation benefits. She testified that she was able to converse in English[,] but could not read or write in English, that she went to community education classes 3 times a week for 6 months in Holland[, Michigan] to learn English, that she received a certificate, and that she was given a Spanish version of the Michigan driver's license test. The claimant testified that she was taking massive dosage[s] of Neurontin, was seeing a therapist every 4 weeks, was no longer taking Vicodin and Darvocet, was taking Paxil for migraine headaches, and had trouble sleeping due to pain. When questioned about her daily activities, the claimant was initially quite vague, but eventually testified that she takes care of her personal needs, drives, prepares meals, has friends and family who visit several times a day, and does laundry with her husband folding the clothes and her ironing them. She shops for groceries with her husband and attends church weekly.

After considering the evidence of record, the undersigned finds that the claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the residual functional capacity assessment for the reasons explained below.

While the undersigned does not doubt that the claimant experiences some difficulty, her statements concerning her impairments and their impact on her ability to work cannot be entirely credited in light of the claimant's own description of her activities and lifestyle, the degree of medical treatment required, the claimant's demeanor at the hearing, the reports of the treating and examining practitioners, the medical history, ...

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