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Kennedy v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 16, 2015



STEPHEN J. MURPHY, III, District Judge.

Theresa Kennedy applied for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Upon denial of her claim, she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied her application in an opinion issued by the ALJ on September 7, 2012. See ALJ Decision, ECF No. 10-2. After the SSA Appeals Council declined to review the decision, Kennedy appealed to federal court. The Court referred the matter to a United States Magistrate Judge, and the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 13, 16. On March 10, 2015, the magistrate judge issued a Report and Recommendation ("Report") suggesting the Court grant the Commissioner's motion, deny Kennedy's motion, and dismiss the case. Report, ECF No. 19. Kennedy filed two objections. The Court has reviewed the fillings and will adopt the Report, overrule Kennedy's objections, and dismiss the case.


Kennedy was forty-nine years old at the time of the administrative hearing. From 1993 until March 2008, she worked as a dental assistant. She stopped working to move to Asia with her husband, but her plans were derailed when her husband filed for divorce. Tr. 261-63, 645. Kennedy did not make the move, and did not return to work due to symptoms from brain aneurysms, arthritis, right hip dislocation, central thrombothycenia, restless leg syndrome, bowl problems, degenerative disc disease, depression, and anxiety. Tr. 274.

In 2007, Kennedy underwent clipping for a right ophthalmic cavernous sinus artery aneurysm. Tr. 394-97. She reported headaches and episodic extremity weakness post-surgery. But a March 2009 head CT indicated no residual or recurrent aneurysms, and a August 2009 cerebral angiogram was negative. Tr. 2F, 51-52, 84-85. A September 2011 brain CT noted no intracranial abnormalities. At a 2009 appointment with her primary care physician, Dr. Stephen Bachmeyer, Kennedy associated her headaches, anxiety, and stress with her bad divorce. Tr. 340-41, 343, 443. Dr. Bachmeyer prescribed Cymbalta, Xanax, and other medications. Id. In May 2010, Kennedy complained to Dr. Bachmeyer of increased stress and depression, and said she was willing to be admitted for inpatient treatment. Tr. 340. She discharged herself after only a day, but was seen on an outpatient basis five times over the next five months. By the fall of 2010, Kennedy reported minimal improvements in her depression symptoms. Tr. 574-75, 580-81.

The ALJ found Kennedy not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security regulations. Initially, she determined Kennedy had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since March 30, 2008, the alleged onset date. Tr. 29. Next, the ALJ stated Kennedy had the following severe impairments: spinal degenerative disc disease, peripheral neuropathy, insomnia, brain aneurysm, mental health impairments, restless leg syndrom, gastrointestinal impairments, obesity, and right hip degenerative joint disease. Id. But the ALJ found none of her ailments met or equaled a listed impairment under the regulations. Id. at 30.

The ALJ then determined Kennedy had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, except no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no more than occasional climbing of ramps or stairs; no more than frequent stopping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, or balancing; no more than occasional bilateral overhead reaching. Tr. 32. And the ALJ limited Kennedy to work that involves simple, routine, repetitive tasks; is low stress, defined as no production paced work, with occasional use of judgment and occasional changes to the work setting; and no more than occasional superficial interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the public. Id. Based on Kennedy's RFC, she could not return to her prior relevant work. She could, however, work as a mail clerk, office helper, and bench assembler. Tr. 37. Given that those jobs exist in sufficient numbers in the Michigan economy, the ALJ found Kennedy not disabled. Id.


A claimant may appeal a Social Security Administration decision to a United States district court. 42 U.S.C. ยง 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." Gayheart 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). "A reviewing court 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).


I. Weight Assigned Consultative And Non-Examining Sources

Kennedy challenges the ALJ's decision to assign more weight to the opinion of state agency consulting psychologist Dr. George Starrett than to the opinions of examining psychologists Drs. Steyaert and Bishop. And Kennedy objects to the ALJ's decision to assign little weight to Dr. Bishop's opinion.

Dr. Steyaert performed a consultative psychological evaluation of Kennedy in October 2009. He opined that Kennedy "has the capacity to understand, carry out simple instructions but her ability to recall instructions is questionable." Tr. 336. He issued Kennedy a GAF score of 45 with a guarded prognosis and based his opinion, in part, on her physical ailments. Id. Dr. Steyaert concluded that "[d]ue to the intensity and severity of the claimant's medical and psychiatric difficulties she most probably would have difficulty with participation in a variety of work activities." Id.

In September 2010, state agency psychological consultant Dr. Starrett performed a review of Kennedy's record, including Dr. Steyaert's evaluation. He assessed Kennedy with an affective disorder resulting in mild restriction of activities in daily living, mild difficulty in maintaining social functioning, and moderate difficult in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace. Tr. 106. Dr. Starrett found Kennedy able to "understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions; make simple work-related judgments and ...

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