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Valencia v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 19, 2016




         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 seeks review of the Commissioner's decision that he was no longer entitled to child insurance benefits (CIB) or supplemental security income (SSI).


         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.


         On August 13, 2008, the Social Security Administration determined that Plaintiff was disabled as of October 13, 2007, a date when Plaintiff was sixteen years old. (Page105.) On May 11, 2012, it determined that Plaintiff was no longer disabled as of May 1, 2012. (PageID.116-119.) On September 26, 2013, a disability hearing officer upheld the decision terminating Plaintiff's benefits. (PageID.148-150.) Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (PageID.155-156.) On March 11, 2014, Plaintiff received a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.64-104.) Though advised of his right to counsel, Plaintiff chose to proceed unrepresented, and signed a statement affirming his decision. (PageID.68-71, 308.) On July 11, 2014, the ALJ issued his decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.41-56.) On December 11, 2015, the Appeals Council denied review, making it the Commissioner's final decision. (PageID.29-33.) This pro se action followed.


         ALJs employ an eight-step sequential analysis in Title II claims and seven steps in Title XVI claims. Steps two through eight in Title II claims mirror steps one through seven in Title XVI. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594, 416.994. At step one in Title II claims, the ALJ examines whether the individual is engaging in substantial gainful activity. If the answer is yes, the individual's disability has ended. Step two is an examination of whether the individual had an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or equals the severity of a listed impairment. If the answer is yes, disability continues. Step three is an inquiry as to whether there had been medical improvement. Step four is an examination whether the medical improvement is related to the individual's ability to perform work. Step five is an analysis conducted if there has been no medical improvement or the medical improvement is not related to the individual's ability to perform work. Step six is a determination whether the individual's current impairments are severe. If there is no severe impairment, the individual is not disabled. Step seven is an assessment of the claimant's “ability to do substantial gainful activity” in accordance with 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560. That is, the ALJ determines the individual's residual functional capacity (RFC) based on all his current impairments and considers whether he can perform past relevant work. If he can perform such work, he is not disabled. Step eight is an administrative finding whether the individual can perform other work in light of his age, education, work experience and RFC. If he is capable of performing other work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f), 416.994(f); see Hagans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 694 F.3d 287, 307-08 (3d Cir .2012); Delph v. Astrue, 538 F.3d 940, 945-46 (8th Cir. 2008). There is no presumption of continuing disability. See Kennedy v. Astrue, 247 F. App'x 761, 764 (6th Cir. 2007) (citing Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286-87 n.1 (6th Cir. 1994)).

         The ALJ began his discussion by finding that the administrative decision dated August 13, 2008 was the most recent favorable decision that Plaintiff was disabled. It was “the ‘comparison point decision' or CPD.” (PageID.43.) At the time of the CPD, Plaintiff had the medically determinable impairment of testicular cancer that was severe enough to meet the requirements of listing 13.25. (PageID.43.) Continuing with the analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity on or after May 1, 2012, the date his disability ended. (PageID.43.) The ALJ found that the medical evidence established that “as of May 1, 2012, ” Plaintiff had the medically determinable impairments of: (1) history of testicular cancer status-post orchiectomy; (2) left foot drop; (3) asthma; (4) obesity; (5) bline intellectual functioning; (6) learning disorder; and (7) adjustment disorder. (PageID.43.) Next, the ALJ found that these impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment. (PageID.43-44.) The ALJ continued by finding that medical improvement occurred as of May 1, 2012, and that this improvement is related to work because as of that date, Plaintiff no longer met or medically equaled the listings that were met at the time of the CPD. (PageID.46.) The ALJ next determined that Plaintiff continued to have severe impairments on and after May 1, 2012. (PageID.46-47.) At the next step, the ALJ found that as of his medical improvement date, Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) limited to lifting and carrying ten pounds frequently and up to twenty pounds occasionally. The claimant can perform no more than frequent forceful gripping or grasping with the right upper extremity. The claimant can stand and walk for two hours total, and sit for six hours total in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. However, the claimant requires the option to alternate sitting and standing every twenty minutes. The claimant can occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant cannot ambulate over uneven terrain or operate foot controls with his left lower extremity. Furthermore, the claimant can have no concentrated exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery. The claimant also can have no concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, humidity, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, or areas of poor ventilation. Additionally, the claimant can follow only simple instructions, and he is limited to performing simple, routine, repetitive work tasks that involve simple instructions and no fast-paced production requirements or specific productions quotas.

(PageID.47.) With that in mind, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had no past relevant work, but that beginning on his medical improvement date, Plaintiff was able to perform a significant number of jobs. (PageID.54-55.) The ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert in doing so. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The expert testified that Plaintiff could perform the following work: office helper (2, 800 Michigan jobs and 32, 000 national jobs), information clerk (2, 000 Michigan jobs and 25, 000 national jobs) and inspector (1, 800 Michigan jobs and 15, 000 national jobs). (PageID.99.) 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.55.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ entered a decision that found Plaintiff's disability ended on May 1, 2012, and that he remained not ...

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