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Conley v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 29, 2015

MICHAEL CONLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

ORDER ADOPTING THE REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION (document no. 20), GRANTING THE COMMISSIONER'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (document no. 18), AND DENYING CONLEY'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (document no. 15)

STEPHEN J. MURPHY, III, District Judge.

Michael Conley applied for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. The Social Security Administration denied his application in an opinion issued by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). After the Appeals Council declined to review his claim, he appealed the decision to this Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court referred the case to United States Magistrate Judge Steven Whalen. Both parties then filed motions for summary judgment. The magistrate issued a Report and Recommendation advising the Court to grant the Commissioner's motion and dismiss the case. Conley filed a timely objection.

BACKGROUND

Conley was born on May 2, 1959, and was 52 years old when the ALJ denied his application for social security benefits. When Conley was 13 years old, he dropped out of school to pursue boxing. Over the next few years he worked as a fast food cook and a laborer for a temporary employment agency. But his earnings never amounted to more than a few hundred dollars.

In 1977, at the age of 18, Conley began receiving social security disability benefits; he claims the Commissioner awarded him benefits because he suffers from an intellectual disability, though the Social Security Administration's records were destroyed and are not part of the record. He also claims he was hospitalized at age 18 for emotional problems. In the 1990s, he injured his shoulder in a boxing accident. Though he had surgery on the shoulder, Conley claims the damage led to arthritis in his shoulder and arm. He was also shot in Atlanta around 1990, though the injury does not appear to have caused permanent damage. Tr. 339, ECF No. 11-7.

Conley was incarcerated in 2002 (for reasons unrelated to his disability payments), and the Commissioner canceled his payments in January of 2003. While in prison, Conley lifted weights, and claimed to squat 250 pounds. Tr. 339. In April of 2010 he fell and hurt his hip and knee, an injury that he reported to prison health care. Tr. 327. They recommended he take pain killers, but provided no other treatment. Tr. 328. He also suffered from rectal prolapse, and was treated at a hospital before returning to prison.

While in prison, medical staff conducted a mental evaluation. It noted that prior to incarceration, he had been using crack cocaine heavily.[1] It also provided that when he was in his 20s, he was "struck in the head with a metal object during a fight." Tr. 324. The report stated his thoughts were "rational, goal directed, and lucid, " that he did not have any memory problems, but that his intelligence level was below average. Tr. 324-25.

After being released from prison, Conley reapplied for social security benefits. Various physicians evaluated Conley in support of his application. Dr. Terrance Mills found that Conley suffered from a learning disorder, and noted that he had been in special education classes as a child. Tr. 346. He stated Conley's responses were "spontaneous, clear, on target, of limited depth, and displayed no circumstantial or tangential tendencies." Tr. 347. Dr. Mills also administered an IQ test, which revealed Conley had a full scale IQ of 52, "within the range of mild mental retardation." Tr. 348. Dr. Mills stated the "[t]est scores are believed to be valid as he understood directions with minor clarification, was attentive, and appeared to put forth good effort." Tr. 348. He further explained that Conley's "ability to understand, retain, and follow simple instructions and perform simple, repetitive, and routine tasks appears to be mildly to moderately impaired." Tr. 349.

For several months after his release from prison, Conley sought psychiatric treatment at Team Mental Health, a clinic in Southeast Michigan. Treatment notes reveal that Conley had not used marijuana or cocaine in "one or two months." Tr. 374. They also describe a patient struggling with depression, a learning disorder, low intelligence, and housing as well as legal troubles.

Conley had a hearing before an ALJ in September of 2011, where he reported that he had been living with his mother since leaving prison. He had not looked for employment due to soreness in his knees and hips. Tr. 43, ECF No. 11-2. And he had not undergone any treatment for pain. Tr. 44. He stated that he did not drive, but that he was able to take public transportation when he had the money. Tr. 45. During the day, he helped his mother clean and do laundry, and was able to cook when his legs were not too sore. Tr. 47-48. Due to arthritis, he had problems sitting for more than a few minutes without readjusting, he walked with a cane, and could not go more than a block without taking a break. Tr. 55-56.

The ALJ issued a written opinion denying an award of benefits. He found that Conley had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since October 1, 1977, the alleged onset date. Tr. 20. Conley presented with several severe impairments, including both cognitive disorders and significant physical limitations. Tr. 21. Nonetheless, the ALJ found that Conley's condition did not equal in severity any of the impairments listed in the regulations. In particular, the ALJ determined that Conley was not intellectually disabled under Listing 12.05. Tr. 21-23. Next, he ruled that Conley could perform medium intensity work, that was "limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks performed at SVP1 or 2 as defined in the DOT; only occasional interaction with the public; only occasional interaction with co-workers." Tr. 23. Based on Conley's residual functional capacity, the ALJ found that there were a significant number of jobs Conley could perform, thereby rendering him not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Tr. 27-28.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A claimant may appeal a social security administration decision to a United States district court. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The district court's review, however, "is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards." Gayheart v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 710 F.3d 365, 374 (6th Cir. 2013) (citations omitted). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (citations omitted). A reviewing court will affirm the Commissioner's decision "if it is based on substantial evidence, even if substantial evidence would also have supported the opposite conclusion." Id. (citations omitted). Nonetheless, an ...


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