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Weeks v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 17, 2016




         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 Dawn Weeks seeks review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title 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 previously filed a claim for SSI alleging disability beginning January 1, 1997. (PageID.104.) In a decision entered on August 10, 2012, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of substance abuse (ETOH, tobacco, marijuana, and cocaine); affective disorder; alcohol-induced affective disorder; personality disorder; and degenerative disc disease, L5-S1 (PageID.106.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform a range of light work, limited by various physical and mental restrictions. (PageID.108.) Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled at step five, and that she could perform work in Michigan such as office clerk (5, 400 jobs), courier and messenger (2, 000 jobs) and production worker (1, 000 jobs). (PageID.116.) Plaintiff did not further pursue this decision, and accordingly it became the Commissioner's final decision.

         On April 23, 2013, Plaintiff filed a new application for SSI. (PageID.122, 188-196.) Plaintiff alleged that she was disabled due to severe depressive disorder, PTSD, hypertension, and back problems. (PageID.122.) Plaintiff's application was denied on July 12, 2013, after which time she sought review before an ALJ. (PageID.142-145, 149-151.) On June 5, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Richard Gartner for an administrative hearing with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.57-98.) The ALJ issued a written decision on July 24, 2014. The ALJ began by noting Plaintiff's prior application, and addressed it as follows:

The undersigned has considered Social Security Acquiescence Ruling 98-3(6). Based on submission of new and material evidence, the undersigned concludes that the requirement in this ruling is not relevant to the specifics of the case at hand.

(PageID.44.) The ALJ went on to conclude that Plaintiff was not disabled, finding that there were a significant number of jobs that she could perform. (PageID.41-56.) On December 14, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.26-31.) 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. § 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. § 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. § 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.

         In the present case, ALJ Gartner determined that 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 April 23, 2013, Plaintiff's application date.[2] (PageID.46.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: (1) substance abuse; (2) major depressive disorder; (3) chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); (4) affective disorder, alcohol induced; (5) personality disorder; (6) degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine at ¶ 5-S1; (7) peripheral vascular disease of the bilateral extremities; and (8) hypertension. (PageID.46.) 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.48-49.)

         At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) with the following limitations: the claimant can lift or carry a maximum of 20 pounds occasionally and less than10 pounds frequently. In an eight-hour workday, the claimant can walk or stand for six hours and sit for six hours. She is limited to occasional postural maneuvers such as balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling and climbing ramps or stairs. The claimant must avoid climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolds. She must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases and environments with poor ventilation. The claimant is limited to occupations which do not require exposure to dangerous machinery and unprotected heights. She is limited to occasional pushing and pulling with lower bilateral extremities to include the operation of foot pedals. The claimant is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks not performed in a fast pace production environment involving only simple, work related decisions, and in general, relatively few work place changes. She is limited to occupations which do not involve the handling, sale or access to alcoholic beverages or narcotic drugs.

(PageID.49.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (PageID.51.) At the fifth step, the ALJ questioned the 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: dishwasher (141, 000 national jobs), packer (150, 000 national jobs), and cleaner of vehicles (72, 000 national jobs). (PageID.90-92.) Based on this record, the ALJ found that ...

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