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Holland v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

January 15, 2015

DENISE HOLLAND, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Doc. # 13) AND DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Doc. # 9)

VICTORIA A. ROBERTS, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter is before this Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Denise Holland ("Holland") challenges a final determination by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits.

The Court GRANTS the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment; and DENIES Holland's Motion for Summary Judgment.

II. SOCIAL SECURITY ACT DISABILITY BENEFITS FRAMEWORK

Under 42 U.S.C. § 423, a wage earner suffering from a disability is entitled to disability benefits. The act defines disability as an "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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

The claimant bears the burden to prove entitlement to benefits. Dice v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 12-CV-11784, 2013 WL 2155528, at *6 (E.D. Mich. Apr. 19, 2013). To determine if a person is disabled, and eligible for benefits, the Commissioner uses a five-step sequential analysis:

Step One: If the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Two: If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, that significantly limits... physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Three: If plaintiff is not performing substantial gainful activity, has a severe impairment that is expected to last for at least twelve months, and the severe impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the regulations, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled regardless of age, education or work experience.
Step Four: If the claimant is able to perform his or her past relevant work, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Five: Even if the claimant is unable to perform his or her past relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, in view of his or her age, education, and work experience, benefits are denied.

Id. (citing 20 CFR § 404.1520). For the first four steps, the claimant bears the burden to prove the severity of impairment and that it precludes performing work. Spreeman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 12-12641, 2013 WL 5212023, at *2 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 16, 2013). At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant is qualified to perform despite impairment. Id. To meet this burden, the Commissioner's decision must be supported by substantial evidence. Varley v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 820 F.2d 777, 779 (6th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence may be produced through reliance on the testimony of a vocational expert in response to a hypothetical question, but only if the question accurately portrays the claimant's individual physical and mental impairments. Id.

III. BACKGROUND AND ADMINISTRATIVE HISTORY

A. Background

Holland worked as a school bus driver. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a partial mastectomy. Holland then began chemotherapy and eventually radiation treatments. As a result of the treatments, Holland suffered from many side effects; she was lethargic and had memory problems. She lost weight and suffered from numbness in her fingers and toes. Early in her recovery she relied heavily on friends and family to aid her in completing basic household tasks, such as preparing meals, doing laundry, and running errands. As time progressed Holland's condition improved. Her doctors reported that Holland tolerated her treatments well; however, she still had some residual side effects, such as numbness in her fingers and toes, sores on her feet, and headaches. Holland eventually returned to work as a bus driver; however, the numbness in her fingers and toes prevented her from being able to drive as efficiently as she once had, and her feet were unable to feel operating pedals.

On February 23, 2011, Holland filed for disability benefits. Her claim was denied on May 3, 2011. Holland proceeded to request a hearing. On February 9, 2012, Holland appeared with counsel before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Kevin Fallis for the disability hearing. During the hearing, Holland testified about her impairments, and Vocational Expert ("VE") Kimberly Warner also testified. On April 18, 2012, the ALJ denied Holland benefits. The ALJ said Holland undoubtedly suffered from pain and difficulties due to her illness; however, she was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied Holland's request for review, and the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner.

Holland now seeks judicial review. She says the ALJ erred because the hypothetical questions posed to the VE did not adequately represent her impairments. She also says the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the medical records of her treating physicians. Holland also claims the ALJ erred when he said Holland was not credible when she testified about the severity of her symptoms. The ...


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