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Gardenhouse v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 30, 2015

LINOEL V. GARDENHOUSE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

OPINION

HUGH W. BRENNEMAN, Jr., Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) which denied his claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI).

Plaintiff was born on June 20, 1964 (AR 587).[1] He alleged a disability onset date of May 5, 2005 (AR 587). Plaintiff completed the 10th grade and had previous employment as a construction worker and plant manager (AR 592, 596). Plaintiff identified his disabling conditions as middle and lower back pain (AR 591). This is not plaintiff's first attempt to obtain disability benefits. The administrative law judge (ALJ) summarized plaintiff's previous application for benefits as follows:

The claimant has alleged disability since May 5, 2005. He has had, however, a previous Administrative Law Judge decision on the issue of disability. Specifically, on July 2, 2009, Administrative Law Judge Mary Ann Poulose found that the claimant had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 1, 2004 through the date of the decision (Exhibit B1A). By notice dated November 21, 2009, the Appeals Council denied the claimant's request for review (Exhibit B2A).
The July 2, 2009 decision has become administratively final and binding (20 CFR 404.900(b), 404.955, 416.1400, and 416.1455). Therefore, earliest date that the claimant can now be considered disabled is July 3, 2009, the day after the prior Administrative Law Judge's decision.

(AR 10).

Plaintiff's present claim, commencing on July 3, 2009, was denied by the ALJ, but then remanded back from the Appeals Council:

This case is before the undersigned Administrative Law Judge on an August 31, 2011 remand from the Appeals Council concerning the claimant's claims for disability, which were filed on October 26, 2009....
In its remand order, the Appeals Council directed the undersigned to re-evaluate the claimant's IQ testing at Exhibit B9F, obtain additional evidence to complete the administrative record, and give further consideration to the claimant's maximum residual functional capacity and provide appropriate rationale (Exhibit B8A).

(AR 10). On remand, the ALJ reviewed plaintiff's claim de novo and entered a decision denying benefits on September 21, 2012 (AR 10-25). This decision, which was later approved by the Appeals Council, has become the final decision of the Commissioner and is now before the Court for review.

I. LEGAL STANDARD

This court's review of the Commissioner's decision is typically focused on determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); McKnight v. Sullivan, 927 F.2d 241 (6th Cir. 1990). "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. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). A determination of substantiality of the evidence must be based upon the record taken as a whole. Young v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 925 F.2d 146 (6th Cir. 1990).

The scope of this review is limited to an examination of the record only. This Court does not review the evidence de novo, make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Brainard v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 1989). The fact that the record also contains evidence which would have supported a different conclusion does not undermine the Commissioner's decision so long as there is substantial support for that decision in the record. Willbanks v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 847 F.2d 301, 303 (6th Cir. 1988). Even if the reviewing court would resolve the dispute differently, the Commissioner's decision must stand if it is supported by substantial evidence. Young, 925 F.2d at 147.

A claimant must prove that he suffers from a disability in order to be entitled to benefits. A disability is established by showing that the claimant cannot engage in 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. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505 and 416.905; Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990). In applying the above standard, the Commissioner has developed a five-step analysis:

The Social Security Act requires the Secretary to follow a "five-step sequential process" for claims of disability. First, plaintiff must demonstrate that she is not currently engaged in "substantial gainful activity" at the time she seeks disability benefits. Second, plaintiff must show that she suffers from a "severe impairment" in order to warrant a finding of disability. A "severe impairment" is one which "significantly limits... physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." Third, if plaintiff is not performing substantial gainful activity, has a severe impairment that is expected to last for at least twelve months, and the impairment meets a listed impairment, plaintiff is presumed to be disabled regardless of age, education or work experience. Fourth, if the plaintiff's impairment does not prevent her from doing her past relevant work, plaintiff is not disabled. For the fifth and final step, even if the plaintiff's impairment does prevent her from doing her past relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, plaintiff is not disabled.

Heston v. Commissioner of Social Security, 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted).

The claimant bears the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by her impairments and the fact that she is precluded from performing her past relevant work through step four. Jones v. Commissioner of Social Security, 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). However, at step five of the inquiry, "the burden shifts to the Commissioner to identify a significant number of jobs in the economy that accommodate the claimant's residual functional capacity (determined at step four) and vocational profile." Id. If it is determined that a claimant is or is not disabled at any point in the evaluation process, further review is not necessary. Mullis v. Bowen, 861 F.2d 991, 993 (6th Cir. 1988).

"The federal court's standard of review for SSI cases mirrors the standard applied in social security disability cases." D'Angelo v. Commissioner of Social Security, 475 F.Supp.2d 716, 719 (W.D. Mich. 2007). "The proper inquiry in an application for SSI benefits is whether the plaintiff was disabled on or after her application date." Casey v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 987 F.2d 1230, 1233 (6th Cir. 1993).

II. ALJ'S DECISION

Plaintiff's claim failed at the fifth step of the evaluation. At the first step, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the July 3, 2009, the day after the previous ALJ's decision, and that he met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2009 (AR 12-13). At the second step, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease with bilateral lumbar facet joint arthropathy (status-post laminectomy and spinal fusion/failed back syndrome), borderline intellectual functioning, and mild chronic depression (AR 13). At the third step, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the requirements of the Listing of Impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (AR 14). Specifically, plaintiff did not meet the requirements of Listings 1.04 (disorders of the spine), 12.02 (organic mental disorders), or 12.04 (affective disorders) (AR 14-16).

The ALJ decided at the fourth step:

[T]that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except that he can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs; can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; must avoid exposure to temperature extremes; and needs a sit-stand option every 15 minutes. He can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions; cannot do detailed or complex work; can follow verbal descriptions but cannot read written instructions; can do work having very limited math requirements; can ...

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