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Cole v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 9, 2015

JEFFREY COLE, Plaintiff,


DAVID M. LAWSON, District Judge.

Plaintiff Jeffrey Cole filed the present action on August 9, 2013 seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying the plaintiff's claims for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act and for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The case was referred to United States Magistrate Judge David R. Grand under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and E.D. Mich. LR 72.1(b)(3). Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgement to reverse the decision of the Commissioner and remand the case with an order for the administrative law judge (ALJ) to calculate and award benefits. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment requesting affirmance of the decision of the Commissioner. Magistrate Judge Grand filed a report on July 31, 2014 recommending that the defendant's motion for summary judgment be granted, the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be denied, and the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed. The plaintiff filed timely objections to the recommendation and the defendant filed a response to the objections. This matter is now before the Court.

When a party files timely objections to a report and recommendation, the Court must "make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified findings or recommendations to which objection is made." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667 (1980); United States v. Walters, 638 F.2d 947 (6th Cir. 1981). This de novo review requires the court to re-examine all of the relevant evidence previously reviewed by the magistrate judge in order to determine whether the recommendation should be accepted, rejected, or modified in whole or in part. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

"The filing of objections provides the district court with the opportunity to consider the specific contentions of the parties and to correct any errors immediately, " Walters, 638 F.2d at 950, enabling the court "to focus attention on those issues - factual and legal - that are at the heart of the parties' dispute, " Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 147 (1985). As a result, "[o]nly those specific objections to the magistrate's report made to the district court will be preserved for appellate review; making some objections but failing to raise others will not preserve all the objections a party may have.'" McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 837 (6th Cir. 2006) (quoting Smith v. Detroit Fed'n of Teachers Local 231, 829 F.2d 1370, 1373 (6th Cir. 1987)).

The Court has reviewed the file, the report and recommendation, and the plaintiff's objections and has made a de novo review of the administrative record in light of the parties' submissions.

The record shows that the plaintiff, who is now 46 years old, filed his application for disability insurance benefits on April 1, 2010, when he was 41. The plaintiff completed the tenth grade, but he did not finish high school. From 1993 to 2005 he worked as a machine builder in the automotive industry. The plaintiff last worked in June 2005 and stopped working when various physical impairments rendered him unable to perform his job as a machine builder. In the application that is the subject of the present appeal, the plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of August 21, 2009. The plaintiff has been diagnosed with blindness and keratitis in the right eye; right elbow epicondylitis; pancreatitis; gout; depression; and a history of alcohol abuse now in remission. However, the plaintiff does not take issue with any of the ALJ's findings on his physical impairments; he focuses solely on his mental impairments.

On April 21, 2010, the plaintiff filed his claim for disability benefits, alleging that he became disabled on August 21, 2009. The plaintiff's application was denied initially on January 3, 2011. Cole timely filed a request for an administrative hearing, and on September 15, 2011, the plaintiff appeared before ALJ David A. Mason, Jr. On October 4, 2011, ALJ Mason issued a written decision in which he found the plaintiff not disabled. However, the Appeals Council granted Cole's request for review of the decision and remanded for a further hearing. On January 3, 2013, Cole appeared and testified at a second hearing before ALJ Jerome B. Blum. On February 21, 2013, ALJ Blum issued a written decision again finding that Cole was not disabled. On September 18, 2013, the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review of the second decision. Cole filed his complaint seeking judicial review on August 9, 2013.

In the second decision, ALJ Blum reached the non-disability determination by applying the five-step sequential analysis prescribed by the Secretary in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. He found that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 21, 2009 (step one); the plaintiff suffered from blindness and keratitis in the right eye, right elbow epicondylitis, pancreatitis, gout, depression, and a history of alcohol abuse now in remission, impairments which were "severe" within the meaning of the Social Security Act (step two); none of these impairments alone or in combination met or equaled a listing in the regulations (step three); and the plaintiff could not perform his previous work as an automotive industry machine builder, which was skilled work requiring heavy exertional capacity the way the plaintiff performed the job (step four).

In applying the fifth step, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform unskilled, sedentary work, with the limitation that he cannot lift more than ten pounds and would need to alternate between sitting and standing as he deemed necessary throughout the workday. A vocational expert (VE) testified that the plaintiff would be able to perform unskilled, sedentary "bench work." The expert testified that there are around 2, 000 such jobs in southeast Michigan and 4, 000 jobs statewide. Based on these findings and using Medical Vocational Rule 204.00 as a framework, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Following the decision by the ALJ, the plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied the plaintiff's request for review on September 18, 2013.

Plaintiff's Objections

The plaintiff reiterated in his objections that he takes issue solely with the ALJ's findings as to his mental limitations and not the findings and conclusions regarding his physical abilities. The plaintiff did not separately number his objections, but his argument centers on the contention that the magistrate judge incorrectly concluded that substantial evidence supported the final determination of the Commissioner. According to the plaintiff, the ALJ did not pose a complete and accurate hypothetical question to the VE reflecting all of the plaintiff's limitations; misconstrued evidence that the plaintiff failed to seek mental health treatment as tending to show that he did not have a mental illness; improperly disregarded other evidence tending to show that the plaintiff had a serious mental condition; and gave undue weight to the opinion of a reviewing examiner who the plaintiff contends did not review the entire medical record. The defendant responds that (1) the limitation to "unskilled work" encompassed by definition the particular limitations of "simple" and "low stress" work cited by the plaintiff, and (2) the plaintiff's argument that his failure to seek mental health treatment is itself symptomatic of mental illness is belied by the fact that the plaintiff repeatedly sought treatment for his physical ailments.

The plaintiff has the burden to prove that he is disabled and therefore entitled to benefits. Boyes v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 46 F.3d 510, 512 (6th Cir. 1994); Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990).

Under 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) & (B) and 1382c(a)(3)(A) & (B), a person is disabled if he is "unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment" and the impairment is so severe that the person "is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful activity which exists in the national economy." Further, "[a] physical or mental impairment is an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(C), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

To determine disability, the Commissioner has prescribed the five-step process noted above and set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 416.920. However, if the plaintiff has satisfied his burden through the first four steps of the analytical process, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that the plaintiff possesses the residual functional capacity to perform other substantial gainful activity. Varley v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 820 F.2d 777, 779 (6th Cir. 1987). See also Allen v. Califano, 613 F.2d 139, 145 (6th Cir. 1980). "To meet this burden, there must be a finding supported by ...

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