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Quakenbush v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 10, 2015

DONALD QUAKENBUSH, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant

For Donald E. Quakenbush, III, plaintiff: Terrence J. Lilly, Kalamazoo, MI.

For Commissioner of Social Security, defendant: Ryan D. Cobb, U.S. Attorney (Grand Rapids), The Law Bldg., Grand Rapids, MI; Susan Reiss, Social Security Administration OGC, Office of the General Counsel, New York, NY.

ELLEN S. CARMODY, United States Magistrate Judge. Hon. Robert J. Jonker.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

ELLEN S. CARMODY, United States Magistrate Judge

This is an action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Section 405(g) limits the Court to a review of the administrative record, and provides that if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it shall be conclusive. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), authorizing United States Magistrate Judges to submit proposed findings of fact and recommendations for disposition of social security appeals, the undersigned recommends that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and this matter remanded for further factual findings pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Court's jurisdiction is confined to a review of the Commissioner's decision and of the record made in the administrative hearing process. See Willbanks v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 847 F.2d 301, 303 (6th Cir. 1988). The scope of judicial review in a social security case is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards in making her decision and whether there exists in the record substantial evidence supporting that decision. See Brainard v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 1989).

The Court may not conduct a de novo review of the case, resolve evidentiary conflicts, or decide questions of credibility. See Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). It is the Commissioner who is charged with finding the facts relevant to an application for disability benefits, and her findings are conclusive provided they are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. See Cohen v. Sec'y of Dep't of Health and Human Services, 964 F.2d 524, 528 (6th Cir. 1992) (citations omitted). It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Bogle v. Sullivan, 998 F.2d 342, 347 (6th Cir. 1993). In determining the substantiality of the evidence, the Court must consider the evidence on the record as a whole and take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight. See Richardson v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 735 F.2d 962, 963 (6th Cir. 1984).

As has been widely recognized, the substantial evidence standard presupposes the existence of a zone within which the decision maker can properly rule either way, without judicial interference. See Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (citation omitted). This standard affords to the administrative decision maker considerable latitude, and indicates that a decision supported by substantial evidence will not be reversed simply because the evidence would have supported a contrary decision. See Bogle, 998 F.2d at 347; Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545.

PROCEDURAL POSTURE

Plaintiff was 34 years of age on his alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 161). He successfully completed high school and previously worked as a set-up operator/buffer and line cook. (Tr. 22). Plaintiff applied for benefits on August 3, 2010, alleging that he had been disabled since February 19, 2010, due to a bulging disc in his back, steel rods in both legs, and left hip pain. (Tr. 161-74, 204). Plaintiff's applications were denied, after which time he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Tr. 96-160). On April 11, 2012, Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Michael Condon with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (Tr. 28-87). In a written decision dated May 25, 2012, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 13-23). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's determination, rendering it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (Tr. 1-6). Plaintiff subsequently initiated this pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision.

On January 22, 2014, Plaintiff filed his initial brief in this matter alleging several grounds for relief. (Dkt. #17). On March 27, 2014, the Commissioner responded by moving to reverse the underlying decision and remand this matter for further factual findings. (Dkt. #22). Specifically, the Commissioner expressly conceded that the ALJ's decision was not, in several respects, not supported by substantial evidence. (Dkt. #22). Plaintiff opposes the Commissioner's motion on the ground that he is entitled to an immediate award of benefits. (Dkt. #23). Thus, the issue before the Court is simply whether Plaintiff is entitled to an immediate award of benefits or whether instead this matter must be remanded to the Commissioner for further factual findings.

RELEVANT MEDICAL EVIDENCE

On January 18, 2009, Plaintiff participated in an MRI examination of his lumbar spine the results of which revealed " L5-S1 left disc extrusion with S1 nerve compression." (Tr. 296).

On January 22, 2009, Plaintiff was examined by Physician's Assistant Steven Cowing and Dr. Michael Kasten. (Tr. 339-43). Plaintiff reported experiencing lower back pain which radiated into his left lower extremity. (Tr. 339). With respect to Plaintiff's subjective allegations, Cowing reported the following:

His pain scale at rest is 5/10. With certain motions, when he gets the radicular symptoms, it increases to 9/10 and is very sharp. Otherwise, the pain is a dull ache located in the left side of his lower back and left buttocks. He has pain constantly but it waxes and wanes. It has been consistent since last Fall. Overall, his symptoms have been worse over the last four weeks.

(Tr. 339).

An examination of Plaintiff's lumbar spine revealed the following:

Lumbar Spine
General (R, L): Normal gait, Stands erect
Inspection (R, L): Spine appears straight, No Erythema, No ecchymosis, No swelling, No abnormal pigmentation, Able to heel and toe walk
Palpation (R, L): Paravertebral musculature tenderness present, No muscle spasm
Motor Strength (R, L): EHL motor strength: 5/5, AT motor strength: 5/5, Peroneal motor strength: 5/5, Gastroc/Soleus motor strength: 5/5, Quadriceps motor strength: 5/5, IS motor strength: 5/5
Sensation (R, L): Intact to light touch, Intact to proprioception Reflexes (R, L): Patellar reflexes , Achilles reflexes , Downgoing toes, Clonus absent, No atrophy present
Special Testing (R): Negative straight leg raise to 90 degrees
Special Testing (L): Positive straight leg raise to 70 degrees
Range of Motion (R, L): Decreased flexion, Decreased extension, Decreased left side bending, Decreased right side bending, Decreased left rotation, Decreased right rotation
Study Results: Review of the patient's MRI on the Bronson PACS reveals degenerative disc disease at L5-S1 and a large left-sided disc extrusion with caudal migration, including migration into the foramen impinging both the developing ...

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