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Hernandez v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 4, 2015

REBECCA HERNANDEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

OPINION

ELLEN S. CARMODY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

This is an action pursuant to Section 205(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 Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. On December 3, 2014, the parties agreed to proceed in this Court for all further proceedings, including an order of final judgment. (Dkt. #11).

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. The Commissioner has found that Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. For the reasons stated below, the Court concludes that the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Commissioner’s decision is affirmed.

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 15 years of age on her alleged disability onset date and 22 years of age as of the date of the ALJ’s decision. (Tr. 49, 160). She possesses a General Education Diploma (GED) and has never worked. (Tr. 59). Plaintiff applied for benefits on September 15, 2011, alleging that she had been disabled since September 1, 2004, due to anxiety and bi-polar disorder. (Tr. 160-65, 173). Plaintiff’s application was denied, after which time she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Tr. 82-159). On October 26, 2012, Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Paul Colter with testimony being presented by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (Tr. 53-73). In a written decision dated January 10, 2013, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 41-49). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ’s determination, rendering it the Commissioner’s final decision in the matter. (Tr. 7-11). Plaintiff initiated this pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the ALJ’s decision.

RELEVANT MEDICAL EVIDENCE

On March 27, 2007, Plaintiff was admitted to the hospital after she began experiencing “increasing depression and suicidal ideations.” (Tr. 366). While Plaintiff had previously been prescribed certain medications to treat her depression, she “recently” stopped taking “all medications.” (Tr. 349). Following her admission, Plaintiff was given medication immediately after which she began “to stabilize psychologically.” (Tr. 345). Plaintiff was discharged from the hospital two days later. (Tr. 345).

Treatment notes dated April 11, 2007, indicate that Plaintiff was suffering from dysthymic disorder and major depression, single episode, moderate. (Tr. 237). Plaintiff’s GAF score was rated as 55.[1] (Tr. 237). On May 16, 2011, Plaintiff reported that her medications were “helping a lot.” (Tr. 233). Treatment notes dated March 19, 2012, indicate that Plaintiff was suffering from bi-polar disorder. (Tr. 247). Plaintiff’s GAF score was rated as 55. (Tr. 247). Treatment notes dated April 20, 2012, through July 25, 2012, indicate that Plaintiff was not taking her medications regularly. (Tr. 243-45).

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 his 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, 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 suffered from anxiety and bi-polar 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. 43-44). With respect to Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform work subject to the following limitations: (1) she is limited to simple, repetitive tasks; and (2) she can have only occasional interaction with the public. (Tr. 44).

Because Plaintiff has no past relevant work 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, his limitations notwithstanding. Such was the case here, as the ALJ questioned a vocational expert.

The vocational expert reported that there existed approximately 36, 900 jobs in the state of California[3] and more than 500, 000 jobs nationally which an individual with Plaintiff’s RFC could perform, such limitations notwithstanding. (Tr. 70-71). 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).

A. The ALJ Properly Evaluated Plaintiff’s Impairments

The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from anxiety and bi-polar disorder both of which he characterized as severe impairments. Plaintiff asserts that she is entitled to relief because the ALJ failed to find that she also suffered from severe depressive disorder. At step two of the sequential disability analysis, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The Sixth Circuit has held that where the ALJ finds the presence of a severe impairment at step two and proceeds to continue through the remaining steps of the analysis, the alleged failure to identify as severe some other impairment constitutes harmless error so long as the ALJ considered the entire medical record in rendering his decision. See Maziarz v. Sec’y of Health and Human Services, 837 F.2d 240, 244 (6th Cir. 1987); Kirkland v. Commissioner of Social Security, 528 Fed.Appx. 425, 427 (6th Cir., May 22, 2013) (“so long as the ALJ considers all the individual’s impairments, the failure to find additional severe impairments. . .does not constitute reversible error”).

The ALJ stated that he considered “the entire record” in this matter, an assertion supported by his detailed discussion of the meager evidence of record. Moreover, this is not a circumstance in which the ALJ failed to recognize as severe an impairment significantly distinct from the other impairments the ALJ found to be severe. See, e.g., Mish v. Commissioner of Social Security, 2011 WL 836750 (W.D. Mich., Mar. 4, 2011). Rather, Plaintiff asserts that she is disabled due to her emotional impairments. The ALJ considered the entire record and concluded that Plaintiff, in fact, suffers from severe emotional impairments. Finally, there is no ...


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