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Shangle v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, Western District of Michigan, Southern Division

March 31, 2015

DARLA SHANGLE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

OPINION

GORDON J. QUIST, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

This is an action pursuant to Section 405(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 under Title II 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. For the reasons articulated herein, the Commissioner’s decision is 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 39 years of age on the date her insured status expired. (Tr. 23, 157). She successfully completed high school and previously worked as an order filler and shipping/receiving clerk. (Tr. 28). Plaintiff applied for benefits on September 9, 2010, alleging that she had been disabled since January 1, 2004, due to degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, bursitis, and irritable bowel syndrome. (Tr. 157-63, 182). Plaintiff later amended her disability onset date to September 1, 2007. (Tr. 21).

Plaintiff’s application was denied, after which time she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Tr. 94-156). On April 20, 2012, Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Michael Condon, with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (Tr. 37-93). In a written decision dated June 28, 2012, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 21-30). 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 action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the ALJ’s decision.

Plaintiff’s insured status expired on December 31, 2007. (Tr. 23). Accordingly, to be eligible for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish that she became disabled prior to the expiration of her insured status. See 42 U.S.C. § 423; Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1182 (6th Cir. 1990).

ANALYSIS OF THE ALJ’S DECISION

The social security regulations articulate a five-step sequential process for evaluating disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a-f), 416.920(a-f).[1] If the Commissioner can make a dispositive finding at any point in the review, no further finding is required. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). The regulations also provide that if a claimant suffers from a nonexertional impairment as well as an exertional impairment, both are considered in determining her residual functional capacity. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945.

The burden of establishing the right to benefits rests squarely on Plaintiff’s shoulders, and she can satisfy her burden by demonstrating that her impairments are so severe that she is unable to perform her previous work, and cannot, considering her age, education, and work experience, perform any other substantial gainful employment existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); Cohen, 964 F.2d at 528. While the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five of the sequential evaluation process, Plaintiff bears the burden of proof through step four of the procedure, the point at which her residual functioning capacity (RFC) is determined. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Walters v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997) (ALJ determines RFC at step four, at which point claimant bears the burden of proof).

The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffers from: (1) fibromyalgia; (2) degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; (3) left shoulder impingement and acromioclavicular arthritis (status-post arthroscopic surgery on September 7, 2007); (4) bursitis of both hips; (5) irritable bowel syndrome; (6) depression; (7) anxiety; and (8) a personality disorder, severe impairments that whether considered alone or in combination with other impairments, failed to satisfy the requirements of any impairment identified in the Listing of Impairments detailed in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 24-25).

The ALJ next determined that as of the date Plaintiff’s insured status expired, she retained the capacity to perform light work[2] subject to the following limitations: (1) she could lift/carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; (2) during an 8-hour workday with normal breaks, she could stand/walk for two hours and sit for six hours; (3) she could not perform rotation, extension, or side-to-side bending of the head or neck greater than 45 degrees from a forward-looking position; (4) she could not tolerate concentrated exposure to damp, wet, or humid conditions; (5) she was unable to perform over-shoulder reaching or lifting with either upper extremity; (6) she could frequently perform gripping and grasping activities with her left hand; (7) she required a sit/stand option; and (8) she was limited to simple, unskilled tasks. (Tr. 25).

The ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work at which point the burden of proof shifted to the Commissioner to establish by substantial evidence that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy which Plaintiff could perform, her limitations notwithstanding. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. While the ALJ is not required to question a vocational expert on this issue, “a finding supported by substantial evidence that a claimant has the vocational qualifications to perform specific jobs” is needed to meet the burden. O’Banner v. Sec’y of Health and Human Services, 587 F.2d 321, 323 (6th Cir. 1978) (emphasis added). This standard requires more than mere intuition or conjecture by the ALJ that the claimant can perform specific jobs in the national economy. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. Accordingly, ALJs routinely question vocational experts in an attempt to determine whether there exist a significant number of jobs which a particular claimant can perform, her limitations notwithstanding. Such was the case here, as the ALJ questioned a vocational expert at the administrative hearing.

The vocational expert testified that there existed in the state of Michigan approximately 4, 000 jobs which an individual with Plaintiff’s RFC could perform, such limitations notwithstanding. (Tr. 84-89). This represents a significant number of jobs. See Born v. Sec’y of Health and Human Services, 923 F.2d 1168, 1174 (6th Cir. 1990); Hall v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 272, 274 (6th Cir. 1988); Martin v. Commissioner of Social Security, 170 Fed.Appx. 369, 374 (6th Cir., Mar. 1, 2006). The ALJ concluded, therefore, that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits.

DISCUSSION

I. Plaintiff’s Credibility

Plaintiff testified at the administrative hearing that she was impaired to an extent well beyond that recognized by the ALJ. The ALJ discounted Plaintiff’s allegations, however, on the ground that such were “not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the above residual functional capacity assessment.” (Tr. 27). Plaintiff argues that she is entitled to relief because the ALJ’s rationale for discounting her testimony is not supported by substantial evidence.

As the Sixth Circuit has long recognized, “pain alone, if the result of a medical impairment, may be severe enough to constitute disability.” King v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 968, 974 (6th Cir. 1984) (emphasis added); see also, Grecol v. Halter, 46 Fed.Appx. 773, 775 (6th Cir., Aug. 29, 2002) (same). As the relevant Social Security regulations make clear, however, a claimant’s “statements about [his] pain or other symptoms will not alone establish that [he is] disabled.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(a); see also, Walters v. Commissioner of Social Security, 127 F.3d 525, 531 (6th Cir. 1997) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(a)) Hash v. Commissioner of Social Security, 309 Fed.Appx. 981, 989 (6th Cir., Feb. 10, 2009). Instead, as the Sixth Circuit has established, a claimant’s assertions of disabling pain and limitation are evaluated pursuant to the following standard:

First, we examine whether there is objective medical evidence of an underlying medical condition. If there is, we then examine: (1) whether objective medical evidence confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising from the condition; or (2) whether the objectively established medical condition is of such a severity that it can reasonably be expected to produce the alleged disabling pain.

Walters, 127 F.3d at 531 (citations omitted). This standard is often referred to as the Duncan standard. See Workman v. Commissioner of Social Security, 105 Fed.Appx. 794, 801 (6th Cir., July 29, 2004).

Accordingly, as the Sixth Circuit has repeatedly held, “subjective complaints may support a finding of disability only where objective medical evidence confirms the severity of the alleged symptoms.” Id. (citing Blankenship v. Bowen, 874 F.2d 1116, 1123 (6th Cir. 1989)). However, where the objective medical evidence fails to confirm the severity of a claimant’s subjective allegations, the ALJ “has the power and discretion to weigh all of the evidence and to resolve the significant conflicts in the administrative record.” Workman, 105 Fed.Appx. at 801 (citing Walters, 127 F.3d at 531).

In this respect, it is recognized that the ALJ’s credibility assessment “must be accorded great weight and deference.” Workman, 105 Fed.Appx. at 801 (citing Walters, 127 F.3d at 531); see also, Heston v. Commissioner of Social Security, 245 F.3d 528, 536 (6th Cir. 2001) (noting that “[i]t is for the [Commissioner] and his examiner, as the fact-finders, to pass upon the credibility of the witnesses and weigh and evaluate their testimony”). It is not for this Court to reevaluate such evidence anew, and so long as the ALJ’s determination is supported by substantial evidence, it must stand. The ALJ found Plaintiff’s subjective allegations to not be fully credible, a finding that should not be lightly disregarded. See Varley v. Sec’y of Health and Human Services, 820 F.2d 777, 780 (6th Cir. 1987). In fact, as the Sixth Circuit recently stated, “[w]e have held that an administrative law judge’s credibility findings are virtually unchallengeable.” Ritchie v. Commissioner of Social Security, 540 Fed.Appx. 508, 511 (6th Cir., Oct. 4, 2013) (citation omitted).

Aside from the vague statement quoted above, the ALJ offered no rationale or analysis to support his determination that Plaintiff was less than credible. While the Court must defer to the ALJ’s credibility determination, the ALJ likewise has an obligation to articulate with some minimal level of specificity the basis for the credibility determination. See Minor v. Commissioner of Social Security, 513 Fed.Appx. 417, 434 (6th Cir., Jan. 24, 2013) (“blanket assertions that the claimant is not believable will not pass muster”). The ALJ’s credibility assessment falls short in this regard.

II. The ALJ Failed to Properly Evaluate the Opinion Evidence

On August 1, 2011, Plaintiff’s long-time treating physician, Dr. Fredric Reyelts, completed a report regarding Plaintiff’s functional limitations. (Tr. 638-45). Dr. Reyelts concluded that Plaintiff was impaired to a far greater extent than the ALJ recognized. The ALJ obviously discounted the doctor’s conclusions. Plaintiff argues that she is entitled to relief because the ALJ’s rationale for discounting Dr. Reyelts opinions is not supported by substantial evidence.

The treating physician doctrine recognizes that medical professionals who have a long history of caring for a claimant and his maladies generally possess significant insight into a claimant’s medical condition. See Barker v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 789, 794 (6th Cir. 1994). An ALJ must, therefore, give controlling weight to the opinion of a treating source if: (1) the opinion is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques” and (2) the opinion “is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record.” Gayheart v. Commissioner of Social Security, 710 F.3d 365, 375-76 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527).

Such deference is appropriate, however, only where the particular opinion “is based upon sufficient medical data.” Miller v. Sec’y of Health and Human Services, 1991 WL 229979 at *2 (6th Cir., Nov. 7, 1991) (citing Shavers v. Sec’y of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 232, 235 n.1 (6th Cir. 1987)). The ALJ may reject the opinion of a treating physician where such is unsupported by the medical record, merely states a conclusion, or is contradicted by substantial medical evidence. See Cohen, 964 F.2d at 528; Miller v. Sec’y of Health and Human Services, 1991 WL 229979 at *2 (6th Cir., Nov. 7, 1991) (citing Shavers v. Sec’y of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 232, 235 n.1 (6th Cir. 1987)); Cutlip v. Sec’y of Health and Human Services, 25 F.3d 284, 286-87 (6th Cir. 1994).

If an ALJ accords less than controlling weight to a treating source’s opinion, the ALJ must “give good reasons” for doing so. Gayheart, 710 F.3d at 376. Such reasons must be “supported by the evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the treating source’s medical opinion and the reasons for that weight.” This requirement “ensures that the ALJ applies the treating physician rule and permits meaningful review of the ALJ’s application of the rule.” Id. (quoting Wilson v. Commissioner of Social Security, 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004)). Simply stating that the physician’s opinions “are not well-supported by any objective findings and are inconsistent with other credible evidence” is, without more, too “ambiguous” to permit meaningful review of the ALJ’s assessment. Gayheart, 710 F.3d at 376-77.

If the ALJ affords less than controlling weight to a treating physician’s opinion, the ALJ must still determine the weight to be afforded such. Id. at 376. In doing so, the ALJ must consider the following factors: (1) length of the treatment relationship and frequency of the examination, (2) nature and extent of the treatment relationship, (3) supportability of the opinion, (4) consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole, (5) the specialization of the treating source, and (6) other relevant factors. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527). While the ALJ is not required to explicitly discuss each of these factors, the record must nevertheless reflect that the ALJ considered those factors relevant to his assessment. See, e.g., Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1258 (10th Cir. 2007); Undheim v. Barnhart, 214 Fed.Appx. 448, 450 (5th Cir., Jan. 19, 2007).

While the ALJ addressed an April 16, 2012 statement by Dr. Reyelts, the ALJ failed to address, at all, Dr. Reyelts’ August 1, 2011 opinion. As previously noted, when an ALJ chooses to accord less than controlling weight to the opinion of a treating physician, the ALJ must adequately articulate his rationale for doing so. Moreover, failure to comply with this requirement is not subject to harmless error analysis. See Wilson, 378 F.3d 546-47. As the court expressly stated:

A court cannot excuse the denial of a mandatory procedural protection simply because, as the Commissioner urges, there is sufficient evidence in the record for the ALJ to discount the treating source’s opinion and, thus, a different outcome on remand is unlikely. . .To hold otherwise, and to recognize substantial evidence as a defense to non-compliance with § 1527(d)(2), would afford the Commissioner the ability [to] violate the regulation with impunity and render the protections promised therein illusory.

Id. at 546 (internal citations omitted).

Because the ALJ offers no rationale at all for the decision to discount the opinion in question, the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence. In light of the fact that Dr. Reyelts’ opinion is inconsistent with the ALJ’s RFC determination, the ALJ’s failure is not harmless. The ALJ’s failure thus violates the principle articulated in Wilson and renders his decision legally deficient.

III. Remand is Appropriate

While the Court finds that the ALJ’s decision fails to comply with the relevant legal standards, Plaintiff can be awarded benefits only if “all essential factual issues have been resolved” and “the record adequately establishes [his] entitlement to benefits.” Faucher v. Secretary of Health and Human Serv’s, 17 F.3d 171, 176 (6th Cir. 1994); see also, Brooks v. Commissioner of Social Security, 531 Fed.Appx. 636, 644 (6th Cir., Aug. 6, 2013). This latter requirement is satisfied “where the proof of disability is overwhelming or where proof of disability is strong and evidence to the contrary is lacking.” Faucher, 17 F.3d at 176; see also, Brooks, 531 Fed.Appx. at 644.

The record fails to establish that Plaintiff is entitled to an award of benefits under the standard set forth in Faucher. There does not exist overwhelming evidence that Plaintiff is disabled. Moreover, while there exists evidence that Plaintiff is more limited than recognized by the ALJ, the record also contains evidence supporting the contrary conclusion. Simply put, evaluation of Plaintiff’s claim requires the resolution of factual disputes which this Court is neither authorized nor competent to undertake in the first instance. Accordingly, the Commissioner’s decision is reversed and this matter remanded for further factual findings.

An Order consistent with this Opinion will enter.


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