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Brown v. Colvin

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

March 31, 2015

TIMOTHY BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Defendant.

ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DKT. 15) AND DENYING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DKT. 17)

TERRENCE G. BERG, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

This is an action for judicial review of an adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff Timothy Brown (“Plaintiff”) seeks a reversal of the Commissioner’s decision that he is not disabled and therefore not eligible for a period of disability and disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff contends that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”): (i) erred in concluding at step four of the analysis that Plaintiff could return to his prior job as a fast food worker, and was therefore not disabled, when that job never rose to the level of “substantial gainful activity, ” and thus was not “past relevant work;” (ii) erred by not recognizing the full impact of Plaintiff’s mental impairments on his ability to work; and (iii) made an improper credibility finding, that was not supported by substantial evidence.

This matter is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. As discussed below, because substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s decision, Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 15) is GRANTED and Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 18) is DENIED, and this case is REMANDED to the Commissioner under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings.

I. BACKGROUND

A lengthy recitation of the administrative record in this case is not necessary, as the Court is remanding this case for further consideration on purely procedural grounds. The ALJ resolved Plaintiff’s claim at step four of the sequential analysis. In doing so, he found that Plaintiff was capable of performing his past relevant work as a fast food worker (Tr. 42). The evidence and applicable regulations, however, do not support the ALJ’s determination that Plaintiff’s employment as a fast food worker was past relevant work, as that work quite clearly never rose to the level of “substantial gainful activity” (“SGA”).

Plaintiff worked as a fast-food worker between 2007 and 2010. The documents in the administrative record provide that Plaintiff’s earnings during these years were never sufficient to be counted as “substantial gainful activity.”[1]For example, Plaintiff earned $820 (total) in 2005 and one had to average $830 per month (~$9, 960 per year) in 2005 for the work to be SGA; he earned $1, 437 in 2006 and one had to average $860 per month (~$10, 320 per year) in 2006 for the work to be SGA; he earned $8, 939 in 2007 and one had to average $900 per month (~$10, 800 per year) in 2007 for the work to be SGA; he earned $7, 864 in 2008 and one had to average $940 per month (~$11, 280 per year) in 2008 for the work to be SGA; he earned $6, 341 in 2009 and one had to average $980 per month (~$11, 760 per year) in 2009 for the work to be SGA; he earned $293 in 2010 and one had to average $1, 000 per month (~$12, 000 per year) in 2010 for the work to be SGA (Tr. 218-219). Plaintiff’s only prior work that arguably rose to the level of SGA was in 2001, when he earned $16, 000.52 as an industrial worker, when one had to average $740 per month (~$8, 880 per year) to be SGA (Tr. 291). The ALJ found that Plaintiff could not return to his industrial work, but was only capable of going back to his fast food work (Tr. 42).

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

In enacting the social security system, Congress created a two-tiered system in which the administrative agency handles claims, and the judiciary merely reviews the agency determination for exceeding statutory authority or for being arbitrary and capricious. See Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521 (1990). The administrative process itself is multifaceted in that a state agency makes an initial determination that can be appealed first to the agency itself, then to an ALJ, and finally to the Appeals Council. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137 (1987). If relief is not found during this administrative review process, the claimant may file an action in federal district court. See Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 537 (6th Cir. 1986).

This Court has original jurisdiction to review the Commissioner’s final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review under this statute is limited in that the court “must affirm the Commissioner’s conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard 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).

If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner’s findings of fact are conclusive. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Therefore, this 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); Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (en banc). 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.” Rogers v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). “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) (citations omitted).

The scope of this Court’s review is limited to an examination of the record only. See Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 357 (6th Cir. 2001). When reviewing the Commissioner’s factual findings for substantial evidence, a reviewing court must consider the evidence in the record as a whole, including that evidence which might subtract from its weight. See 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 must discuss every piece of evidence in the administrative record. See Kornecky v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 167 Fed. App’x. 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.”) (internal citation marks omitted); see also Van Der Maas v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 198 Fed. App’x. 521, 526 (6th Cir. 2006).

B. Governing Law

The “[c]laimant bears the burden of proving his entitlement to benefits.” Boyes v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 46 F.3d 510, 512 (6th Cir. 1994); accord Bartyzel v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 74 Fed. App’x. 515, 524 (6th Cir. 2003). There are several benefits programs under the Act, including the Disability Insurance Benefits Program (“DIB”) of Title II (42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq.) and the Supplemental Security Income Program (“SSI”) of Title XVI (42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq.). 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. See F. Bloch, Federal Disability Law and Practice ยง 1.1 (1984). While the two programs ...


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