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Chevalier v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 30, 2015



PATRICIA T. MORRIS, Magistrate Judge.


In light of the entire record in this case, I suggest that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's determination that Plaintiff is not disabled. Accordingly, IT IS RECOMMENDED that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment be DENIED and that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment be GRANTED.


A. Introduction and Procedural History

This case was referred to Magistrate Judge Patricia T. Morris, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B); E.D. Mich. LR 72.1(b)(3), by Notice of Reference to review the Commissioner's decision denying Plaintiff's claims for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). This matter is currently before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 18, 20.)

Plaintiff Michael Chevalier was forty-one years old at the time of the administrative hearing on July 17, 2012. (Transcript, Doc. 33 at 13, 157, 164.) Plaintiff worked as an assembly line worker, a tree trimmer, and a photographer before his alleged disability onset. (Tr. at 218.) Plaintiff filed his claims for DIB and SSI on May 19, 2011, alleging that he became unable to work on January 30, 2000.[2] (Tr. at 157-63, 164-74.) The claims were denied at the initial administrative stage. (Tr. at 78-79.) In denying Plaintiff's claims, the Commissioner considered discogenic and degenerative disorders of the back and curvature of the spine. ( Id. ) On July 17, 2012, Plaintiff appeared before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Thomas McGovern, who considered the application for benefits de novo. (Tr. at 33-77.) In a decision dated August 30, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. at 13-31.)

On September 17, 2013, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, see Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 543-44 (6th Cir. 2004), when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. at 3-8.) On February 25, 2014, Plaintiff filed the instant suit, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's unfavorable decision. (Doc. 1.)

B. Standard of Review

The Social Security Administration has promulgated the following rules for the administration of disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 401-422. First, a state agency, acting under the authority and supervision of the Administration, usually makes the initial determination of whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1503; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 142 (1987). If denied, the claimant may seek review of the state's decision through the Administration's three-stage review process. Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142. In the first step of this process, the state's disability determination is reconsidered de novo by the state agency. Id. Next the claimant has the right to a hearing before an ALJ. Id. Finally, "the claimant may seek review by the Appeals Council." Id. Only after the Commissioner has issued a final administrative decision that is unfavorable may the claimant file an action in federal district court. Id .; Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 537 (6th Cir. 1986) (en banc).

This Court has original jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decisions under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This is a limited review where we "must affirm the Commissioner's conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standards or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.'" Longworth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005) ( quoting Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004); see also Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997).

C. The ALJ's Five-Step Sequential Analysis

The "[c]laimant bears the burden of proving his [or her] entitlement to benefits." Boyes v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 46 F.3d 510, 512 (6th Cir. 1994); accord Bartyzel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 74 F.Appx. 515, 524 (6th Cir. 2003). While, in general, the claimant "is responsible for providing the evidence" to make a residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment, before a determination of not disabled is made, the Commissioner is "responsible for developing [a claimant's] complete medical history, including arranging for a consultative examination[] if necessary." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3).

Title II, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, provides DIB to qualifying wage earners who become disabled prior to the expiration of their insured status; Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1385, provides SSI to poverty-stricken adults and children who become disabled. F. Bloch, Federal Disability Law and Practice § 1.1 (1984). "DIB and SSI are available only for those who have a disability.'" Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). "Disability" means:

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), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). Disability is to be determined through the application of 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 the claimant 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.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001). "If the Commissioner makes a dispositive finding at any point in the five-step process, the review terminates." Colvin, 475 F.3d at 730.

"Through step four, the claimant bears the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by" an impairment that precludes performance of past relevant work. Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003) (cited with approval in Cruse v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 502 F.3d 532, 540 (6th Cir. 2007)). If the analysis reaches step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that "other jobs in significant numbers exist in the national economy that [the claimant] could perform given [his or] her RFC and considering relevant vocational factors." Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(g)); see also Combs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 459 F.3d 640, 643 (6th Cir. 2006).

D. The ALJ's Findings

The ALJ applied the five-step disability analysis to Plaintiff's claim and found at Step One that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through September 30, 2011, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 3, 2000, the alleged onset date. (Tr. at 19.) At Step Two, he found that Plaintiff's conditions of ankylosing spondylosis of the cervical spine, chronic neck pain, bilateral foot bunions, depression, and anxiety, were "severe" within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 and § 416.920. ( Id. ) At Step Three, he found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or was the medical equivalent of a listing in the regulations. (Tr. at 19-20.) At Step Four, he found that Plaintiff could perform simple unskilled sedentary work with several limitations and was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. at 20-26.) He also found that Plaintiff was twenty-eight years old on the alleged onset date, putting him into the "younger individual" range of eighteen to forty-four years old. (Tr. at 26.) At Step Five the ALJ found that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, there were jobs existing in the economy in significant numbers that Plaintiff could perform, and therefore, found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. at 27-28.)

E. Administrative Record

1. Medical History

a. Treatment of Physical Symptoms

On February 24, 2010, Plaintiff saw Dr. Susan J. VanDellen for a rheumatological consultation for ankylosing spondylitis ("AS"). (Tr. at 254-60.) He had been diagnosed with the condition when he was sixteen years old. ( Id. ) He was taking Enbrel which was working "well" for him. ( Id. ) He had pain in his low back, mid back, neck, ribs, and into his legs. ( Id. ) He had intermittent sternum pain and denied swelling in the joints when he was diagnosed. ( Id. ) He also had a history of iritis and used steroid eye drops. ( Id. ) He had a lot of stiffness in the mornings. ( Id. ) He was a self-employed photographer and also worked on home renovations. ( Id. ) X-rays of the pelvis showed "there [was] almost complete fusion of the sacroiliac joints, hip joint spaces [were] intact, [and there was] no syndesmophytes in the lower lumbar spine; x-rays of the sacroiliac joints showed also showed fusion. ( Id. ) Plaintiff was counseled about his condition and was to continue on Enbrel shots once per week. ( Id. )

On July 14, 2010, Plaintiff saw Dr. VanDellen for a "flare of neck pain, which cause[d] headaches." ( Id. ) He had been through physical therapy and it was not helping. ( Id. ) He had normal lateral range of motion and good extension, but decreased flexion in his neck. ( Id. ) Her relevant impressions were AS, neck pain, and headaches. ( Id. ) She offered a Medrol Dosepak, and physical therapy but Plaintiff declined. She recommended a stretching program for his axial spine, and also advised him to try water aerobics or yoga and to swim for exercise; Plaintiff did not want ...

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