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Kenworthy v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 7, 2016

FRANCES KENWORTHY, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY. Defendant.

          OPINION

          GORDON J. QUIST DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is a social security action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). Plaintiff Frances Kenworthy 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.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 evidence 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.

         PROCEDURAL POSTURE

         This is the second time Plaintiff's applications for benefits have reached this level of review. By way of background, Plaintiff filed for benefits on July 29, 2009. (PageID.88-89, 884-896.) She had previously graduated from college and had been employed as both an office and sales clerk, but claimed that she had become disabled due to shoulder problems and bipolar dis. (PageID.340, 375, 996.) Plaintiff's applications were denied on December 10, 2009, after which time she requested review by an ALJ. (PageID.92-99.) On December 2, 2011, ALJ Jessica Inouye rendered a written decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.38-50.) On June 10, 2013, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.22-28.) Plaintiff appealed to this district, and on September, 18, 2014, Judge Neff adopted Magistrate Judge Carmody's Report and Recommendation that reversed and remanded the Commissioner's decision for failure to provide good reasons for assigning less than controlling weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician. See Kenworthy v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 1:13-cv-875 (W.D. Mich. Sept. 18, 2014). Consistent with Judge Neff's order, the Appeals Council remanded the case to ALJ Carol Guyton.[1] (PageID.484-490.) On March 17, 2015, ALJ Guyton issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (PageID.300-328.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         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 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.

         On remand, ALJ Guyton determined Plaintiff's claim failed at the fifth step of the evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 29, 2009, her alleged onset date. (PageID.306.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: (1) bipolar disorder; (2) generalized anxiety disorder; (3) borderline personality disorder traits; and (4) history of substance addiction disorder. (PageID.306.) 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.309-311.) At the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but her ability to reach overhead, push, and pull with the right upper extremity is reduced to occasionally; she should avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights, moving machinery, vibration, and extreme temperatures; and she is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and can occasionally crawl. She has the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant is limited to nonproduction-paced, simple, routine, and repetitive work (simple routine tasks involving no more than simple short instructions and simple work-related decisions with few workplace changes.) She should not work in close proximity to co-workers; should have no more than occasional contact with others; should not engage in jobs requiring tandem tasks; and can have occasional contact with the public and occasional supervision. She should be allowed to make[] notes to aid memory.

(PageID.311-312.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.320-321.) At the fifth step, the ALJ questioned a vocational expert (VE) to determine whether a significant number of jobs exist in the economy that Plaintiff could perform given her limitations. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform the following work: folder (52, 000 national jobs), garment sorter (55, 000 national jobs), and sorter of agricultural products (53, 000 national jobs). (PageID.103-105.) 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.322.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled at any point from her alleged onset date through ...


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