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Vermeesch v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 31, 2015



STEPHEN J. MURPHY, III, District Judge.

Jeanann Vermeesch applied for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied her application in an opinion issued by an Administrative Law Judge. After the Appeals Council declined to review her claim, she appealed the decision to this Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). District Judge Lawrence Zatkoff referred the matter to a United States Magistrate Judge.[1] Vermeesch filed a motion to remand, and the Commissioner filed for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 14, 16. On March 11, 2015, the magistrate judge issued a Report and Recommendation ("Report"), advising the Court deny Vermeesch's motion, grant the Commissioner's motion, and dismiss the case. Report, ECF No. 19. Vermeesch filed timely objections. ECF No. 20.


Vermeesch was forty-five years old when the ALJ denied benefits. Tr. 135. She had previously worked as a data entry clerk and a secretary, and had performed housecleaning work until 2011. Tr. 39-40. Vermeesch stopped working due to symptoms from fibromyalgia, venous insufficiency, arthritis, migraines, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, apnea, back problems, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, anxiety, stress, and allergies. Tr. 159. She indicated her disabling conditions include an inability to sit or stand for lengthy periods, fatigue, daily pain, and trouble sleeping. Tr. 185.

The ALJ found Vermeesch not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security regulations. Initially, she determined Vermeesch had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since May of 2011, the alleged disability onset date. Tr. 18. Next, the ALJ stated Vermeesch had several severe impairments affecting her ability to work, though none of her ailments met or equaled a listed impairment under the regulations.

The ALJ then determined Vermeesch had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, except she can sit, stand, or walk for up to six hours in an eight-hour day; "lift up to eight pounds; occasionally climb, crouch, crawl, stoop and kneel; frequently, but not constantly, use her bilateral upper extremities; [but] she is limited to unskilled work activity; and she must avoid exposure to occupational hazards, such as moving machinery, unprotected heights, and commercial driving." Tr. 22. Based on Vermeesch's RFC, she could not perform her prior relevant work. She could, however, work as a hostess, information clerk, or inspector. Given that those jobs existed in sufficient numbers in Michigan, the ALJ found Vermeesch not disabled. Tr. 30.


A claimant may appeal a Social Security Administration decision to a United states district court. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The district court's review, however, "is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards." Gayhart v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 710 F.3d 365, 374 (6th Cir. 2013) (citations omitted). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (citations omitted). The court employs a deferential level of review, and "will affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on substantial evidence, even if substantial evidence would also have supported the opposite conclusion." Id. (citations omitted). Nonetheless, an "ALJ's failure to follow agency rules and regulations denotes a lack of substantial evidence, even where the conclusion of the ALJ may be justified based on the record." Id. (citations omitted).


Vermeesch raises five objections to the Commissioner's denial of her SSI and DIB petition, and challenges the weight given a treating physician opinion, the adequacy of the RFC assessment, and the accuracy of posed hypothetical questions.

I. Treating Source Opinion

Vermeesch objects to the ALJ's assignment of little or no weight to the opinion of treating physician Dr. Mark Gerold. According to Vermeesch, the ALJ erred in finding Gerold's opinion inconsistent with his own treatment notes and the objective medical record. Vermeesch claims Gerold's findings are supported by his own observations of her leg swelling, his notation of a positive straight leg test, his prescription of drugs for migraines, and the records of her neurologist, Dr. David Udehn. Pl. Mot. Summ. J. 3, ECF No. 20.

Treating source opinions must be given "controlling weight" if "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques" and "not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); see Gayheart, 710 F.3d at 376. If controlling weight is not given, the ALJ then considers relevant factors such as the "length, frequency, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship, " "the treating source's area of speciality, " and the opinion's evidentiary support and consistency with the record as a whole. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)-(6); Gayheart, 710 F.3d at 376. In discounting the weight given a treating-source opinion, the ALJ is required to provide "good reasons, " ...

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