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Phifer v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 31, 2015

ELMER PHIFER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

OPINION

GORDON J. QUIST, 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 set forth below, the court will affirm the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits.

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 & Human Servs., 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 & Human Servs., 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 & Human Servs., 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 & Human Servs., 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 born on November 22, 1960, and worked as an auto assembler for General Motors from 1984 through 2007. (Tr. 65, 70.) Plaintiff filed a protective application for Title II disability insurance benefits on September 18, 2007, alleging disability beginning January 18, 2007. (Tr. 62.) After the claim was initially denied, Plaintiff requested a hearing. On March 25, 2010, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Karen Sayon held a hearing, and on July 26, 2010, ALJ Sayon issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 71.) ALJ Sayon found that Plaintiff retained a residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, [1] except that Plaintiff could only occasionally climb and push or pull with both arms, and he must avoid exposure to vibration. (Tr. 65.)

On July 2, 2011, Plaintiff protectively filed another application for Title II disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning on September 29, 2008. (TR. 20, 75.) Plaintiff alleged disability based on neck spasms down the arms into his hands and hips. (Tr. 75.) The claim was initially denied on October 28, 2011, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. On September 7, 2012, ALJ Paul W. Jones held a hearing, at which Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert testified. (TR. 20.) On October 10, 2012, ALJ Jones issued a written decision concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 20-27.) The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's determination, rendering it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (Tr. 1-3.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision.

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).[2] 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 residual functional capacity. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945.

The Plaintiff bears the burden of establishing the right to benefits, and he can satisfy his burden by demonstrating that his impairments are so severe that he is unable to perform his previous work, and cannot, considering his 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 his 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 first applied the doctrine of res judicata to ALJ Sayon's prior opinion and concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled through July 26, 2010-the date of the prior decision. (Tr. 20.) Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date and that Plaintiff suffers from spinal degenerative disease and a right wrist cyst, 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 Plaintiff's RFC, and explained that pursuant to Drummond v. Commissioner of Social Security, 126 F.3d 837 (6th Cir. 1997), and Social Security Acquiescence Ruling 98-4(6), 1998 WL 283902, he was required to adopt the RFC determination from the prior adjudication unless there was "new and material evidence relating to such a finding or there has been a change in the law, regulations or rulings affecting the finding or the method for arriving at the finding." (Tr. 23.) The ALJ thus determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform ...


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