United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Northern Division
TERRY A. WHITE, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
PATRICIA T. MORRIS, Magistrate Judge.
This is an action for judicial review of Defendant's decision denying Plaintiff's claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. The case is before this magistrate judge pursuant to the parties' consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and the District Judge Gerald E. Rosen's order of reference. (Doc. 15.) Pursuant to E.D. Mich. LR 7.1(e)(2), the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (Docs. 13, 17, 18) will be decided without oral argument.
Plaintiff Terry A. White was forty-five years old at the time of the most recent administrative hearing. (Transcript, Doc. 10 at 30.) Plaintiff's employment history includes work as a laborer for a trucking company and an erosion control company for twenty-two years. (Tr. at 134.) Plaintiff filed the instant claim for benefits on September 30, 2011, alleging, in an amended onset date, that he became unable to work on September 26, 2011. (Tr. at 30, 105.) The claim was denied at the initial administrative stage. (Tr. at 52.) In denying Plaintiff's claim, the Commissioner considered disorders of the back, discogenic and degenerative, and affective disorders as possible bases for disability. (Id. ) On November 7, 2012, Plaintiff appeared before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Renita Barnett-Jefferson, who considered the application for benefits de novo. (Tr. at 8-25, 26-51.) In a decision dated February 15, 2013, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. at 21.) Plaintiff requested a review of this unfavorable decision on March 11, 2013. (Tr. at 6-7.)
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), on April 8, 2014, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. at 1-5.) On April 29, 2014, Plaintiff filed the instant suit seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's unfavorable decision.
B. Standard of Review
The Social Security system has a two-tiered structure in which the administrative agency handles claims and the judiciary merely reviews the factual determinations to ensure they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). The administrative process provides multiple opportunities for reviewing the state agency's initial determination. The Plaintiff can first appeal the decision to the Social Security Agency, then to an ALJ, and finally to the Appeals Council. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 142 (1987). Once this administrative process is complete, an unsuccessful claimant may file an action in federal district court. Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 524-28 (1990), superseded by statute on other grounds, Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-193, 110 Stat. 2105; Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 537 (6th Cir. 1986) (en banc).
This Court has original jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision. The statute limits the scope of judicial review, requiring the Court to "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). The court's review of the decision for substantial evidence does not permit it to "try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence, or decide questions of credibility.'" Ulman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007)). See also Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984).
"It is of course for the ALJ, and not the reviewing court, to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, including that of the claimant." Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 247 (6th Cir. 2007). See also Cruse v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 502 F.3d 532, 542 (6th Cir. 2007) (noting that the "ALJ's credibility determinations about the claimant are to be given great weight, particularly since the ALJ is charged with observing the claimant's demeanor and credibility'" (quoting Walters, 127 F.3d at 531 ("Discounting credibility to a certain degree is appropriate where an ALJ finds contradictions among medical reports, claimant's testimony, and other evidence."))); Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 475 (6th Cir. 2003) ("[A]n ALJ is not required to accept a claimant's subjective complaints and may... consider the credibility of a claimant when making a determination of disability."). "However, the ALJ is not free to make credibility determinations based solely on an intangible or intuitive notion about an individual's credibility.'" Rogers, 486 F.3d at 247 (quoting SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *4).
The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Therefore, a court may not reverse the Commissioner's decision merely because it disagrees or because "there exists in the record substantial evidence to support a different conclusion.'" McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006) (quoting Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 772 (6th Cir. 2001)). See also Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545. The court can only review the record before the ALJ. Bass, 499 F.3d at 512-13; Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 357 (6th Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). See also Jones, 336 F.3d at 475. "[T]he... standard is met if a reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Longworth, 402 F.3d at 595 (quoting Warner, 375 F.3d at 390). "The substantial evidence standard presupposes that there is a "zone of choice'" within which the Commissioner may proceed without interference from the courts." Felisky v. Bowen, 35 F.3d 1027, 1035 (6th Cir. 1994) (quoting Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545).
A court's review of the Commissioner's factual findings for substantial evidence must consider the evidence in the record as a whole, including that evidence which might subtract from its weight. Wyatt v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992). "Both the court of appeals and the district court may look to any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the Appeals Council." Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 535 (6th Cir. 2001). There is no requirement, however, that either the ALJ or the reviewing court discuss every piece of evidence in the administrative record. Van Der Maas v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 198 F.Appx. 521, 526 (6th Cir. 2006); Kornecky v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 167 F.Appx. 496, 508 (6th Cir. 2006) ("[A]n ALJ can consider all the evidence without directly addressing in his written decision every piece of evidence submitted by a party.'" (quoting Loral Defense Systems-Akron v. N.L.R.B., 200 F.3d 436, 453 (6th Cir. 1999))).
C. Governing Law
"The burden lies with the claimant to prove that she is disabled.'" Ferguson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 628 F.3d 269, 275 (6th Cir. 2010) (quoting Foster, 279 F.3d at 353). Accord Boyes v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 46 F.3d 510, 512 (6th Cir. 1994)). There are several benefits programs under the Act, including the DIB program of Title II, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34, and the Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") program of Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85. Title II benefits are available to qualifying wage earners who become disabled prior to the expiration of their insured status; Title XVI benefits are available to poverty-stricken adults and children who become disabled. F. Bloch, Federal Disability Law and Practice § 1.1 (1984). While the two programs have different eligibility requirements, "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 [twelve] months.
42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (DIB); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a) (SSI).
The Commissioner's regulations provide that 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 ...