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Tennant v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 5, 2016

MISTY M. TENNANT, Plaintiff,


          JANET T. NEFF United States District Judge

         This is a social security action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). Plaintiff Misty Tennant seeks review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.


         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 & Human Servs., 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 Health & Human Servs., 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 & Human Servs., 735 F.2d 962, 963 (6th Cir. 1984). 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.


         Plaintiff was thirty-six years of age on the date of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision. (PageID.42, 88, 97.) She obtained a GED, and was previously employed as a home health aide. (PageID.66, 77.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on October 7, 2011, alleging that she had been disabled since June 30, 2008, due to spondylolysis, degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, and migraines. (PageID.88, 97, 201-214.) Plaintiff's applications were denied on initial review, and again upon reconsideration, after which time she requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.135-142, 150-151.) On May 2, 2014, Plaintiff appeared by phone before ALJ Gregory Wilson for an administrative hearing with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.61-80.) In a written decision dated August 28, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.42-59.) On November 10, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.35-39.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         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).[1] 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 the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945.

         Plaintiff has the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by her impairments and that she is precluded from performing past relevant work through step four. Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). At step five, it is the Commissioner's burden “to identify a significant number of jobs in the economy that accommodate the claimant's residual functional capacity (determined at step four) and vocational profile.” Id.

         ALJ Wilson determined that Plaintiff's claim failed at the fourth step of the evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.47.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: (1) migraine headaches; (2) back impairment affecting the cervical and lumbar spine; and (3) obesity. (PageID.47.) At the third step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the requirements of the Listing of Impairments. (PageID.48.) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c). Function by function, the claimant is able to lift and carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently. The claimant is able to sit, stand and walk up to six hours each in an eight-hour workday. The claimant can occasionally kneel, crouch, crawl, and stoop as well as reach overhead. The claimant can frequently balance, but is restricted from climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolds. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards.

(PageID.48.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined found that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a home health aide, because such work did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by her residual functional capacity (RFC). (PageID.53.)

         Although he was not required to, the ALJ proceeded to make an alternative fifth step determination. At the hearing, the ALJ questioned a vocational expert to determine whether a significant number of other jobs exist in the economy that Plaintiff could perform given her limitations. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The expert testified that Plaintiff could perform the following work: nurse aide (12, 000 jobs in Michigan and 210, 000 jobs in the nation) and home attendant (4, 000 jobs in Michigan and 77, 000 jobs in the nation.) (PageID.78.) Based on this record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of making a successful adjustment to work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (PageID.54.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from June 30, 2008, through August 28, 2014, ...

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