United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Northern Division
MAGISTRATE JUDGE PATRICIA T. MORRIS MAGISTRATE
JUDGE'S OPINION AND ORDER ON CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY
JUDGMENT (DOCS. 17, 19)
Patricia T. Morris, United States Magistrate Judge.
Introduction and Procedural History
to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), E.D. Mich. LR 72.1(b)(3),
and by Notice of Reference, this case was referred to the
undersigned magistrate judge for the purpose of reviewing a
final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's claim
for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act
42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. (Doc. 4). The matter is
currently before the Court on cross-motions for summary
judgment. (Docs. 17, 19).
March 2013, Plaintiff Mark Muma filed an application for DIB,
alleging a disability onset date of September 15, 2012. (Tr.
62-63). The Commissioner denied his claim. (Tr. 62). Muma
then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”), which occurred on April 3, 2014, before
ALJ Andrew Sloss. (Tr. 30-53). At the hearing,
Muma-represented by his attorney, Paul Whiting-testified,
alongside Vocational Expert (“VE”) Pauline
McEachin. (Id.). The ALJ's written decision,
issued January 8, 2015, found Muma not disabled. (Tr. 33-52).
On June 9, 2015, the Appeals Council denied review, (Tr.
1-6), and Muma filed for judicial review of that final
decision on August 7, 2015. (Doc. 1).
Standard of Review
district court has jurisdiction to review the
Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to
42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The district court's review is
restricted solely to determining whether the
“Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal
standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by
substantial evidence in the record.” Sullivan v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 595 F App'x. 502, 506 (6th
Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). Substantial
evidence is “more than a scintilla of evidence but less
than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007) (internal
quotation marks omitted).
Court must examine the administrative record as a whole, and
may consider any evidence in the record, regardless of
whether it has been cited by the ALJ. See Walker v.
Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 884 F.2d 241,
245 (6th Cir. 1989). The Court will not “try the case
de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor decide
questions of credibility.” Cutlip v. Sec'y of
Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir.
1994). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by
substantial evidence, “it must be affirmed even if the
reviewing court would decide the matter differently and even
if substantial evidence also supports the opposite
conclusion.” Id. at 286 (internal citations
Framework for Disability Determinations
the Act, “DIB and SSI are available only for those who
have a ‘disability.'” Colvin v.
Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007).
“Disability” means the inability
to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of
any medically determinable physical or mental impairment
which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted
or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not
less than [twelve] months.
42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (DIB); 20
C.F.R. § 416.905(a) (SSI). The Commissioner's
regulations provide that disability is to be determined
through the application of a five-step sequential analysis:
Step One: If the claimant is currently engaged in substantial
gainful activity, benefits are denied without further
Step Two: If the claimant does not have a severe impairment
or combination of impairments that “significantly
limits . . . physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities, ” benefits are denied without further
Step Three: If the claimant is not performing substantial
gainful activity, has a severe impairment that is expected to
last for at least twelve months, and the severe impairment
meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the
regulations, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be
disabled regardless of age, education or work experience.
Step Four: If the claimant is able to perform his or her past
relevant work, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Five: Even if the claimant is unable to perform his or
her past relevant work, if other work exists in the national
economy that plaintiff can perform, in view of his or her
age, education, and work experience, benefits are denied.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. See also Heston
v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir.
2001). “Through step four, the claimant bears the
burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations
caused by [his or] her impairments and the fact that she is
precluded from performing [his or] her past relevant
work.” Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336
F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). The burden transfers to the
Commissioner if the analysis reaches the fifth step without a
finding that the claimant is not disabled. Combs v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 459 F.3d 640, 643 (6th Cir.
2006). At the fifth step, the Commissioner is required to
show that “other jobs in significant numbers exist in
the national economy that [the claimant] could perform given
[his or] her RFC [residual functional capacity] and
considering relevant vocational factors.”
Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241 (citing 20 C.F.R.
§§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), (g)).
the authority of the Social Security Act, the SSA has
promulgated regulations that provide for the payment of
disabled child's insurance benefits if the claimant is at
least eighteen years old and has a disability that began
before age twenty-two (20 C.F.R. 404.350(a) (5) (2013). A
claimant must establish a medically determinable physical or
mental impairment (expected to last at least twelve months or
result in death) that rendered her unable to engage in
substantial gainful activity. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
The regulations provide a five-step sequential evaluation for
evaluating disability claims. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
the five-step sequential analysis, the ALJ found Muma not
disabled under the Act. (Tr. 8-25). At Step One, the ALJ
found that Muma had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity following his alleged onset date of September 15,
2012. (Tr. 13). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that the
following impairments qualified as severe:
“degenerative disc disease and chronic obstructive
pulmonary disorder.” (Id.). The ALJ also
decided that none of these met or medically equaled a listed
impairment at Step Three. (Tr. 19-21). The ALJ then found
that Muma had the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform light work with the following
[O]nly frequently climbing ramps or stairs. He must avoid
even moderate exposure to extreme cold and respiratory
irritants, and must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme
heat, wetness, or humidity.
(Tr. 19). At Step Four, the ALJ found Muma “capable of
performing past relevant work as a manger and RV
[recreational vehicle] technician as generally performed and
his past relevant work as an IT [information technology]
technician as generally and actually performed.” (Tr.
24). In light of this finding, the ALJ did not proceed to
Step Five, and deemed Muma not disabled. (Tr. 24-25).
worked a variety of jobs before his alleged onset date,
including construction laborer, auto repair service manager,
RV service technician, golf cart service technician, and tech
support employee. (Tr. 188). Through the year 2013, Muma took
a variety of medications to quell his symptoms, including:
Advair (for breathing problems), Albuterol (same), Clonazepam
(for “leg problems”), Flexeril (for pain),
Hyperlipidemia (for high cholesterol), Klonopin (for restless
leg syndrome), Sertraline (for depression), Singular (for
breathing problems), Ventolin (for COPD), Vicodin (for pain),
Zocor (for high cholesterol), and Zoloft (for depression).
(Tr. 157, 179).
2006, when his conditions began to emerge with more force, a
chest MRI showed “some fatty end plate degenerative
change involving the L2 vertebral body, ” “mild
anterior wedging of T12, ” disc desiccation at L5-S1,
” “hypertrophic facet arthropathy and hypertrophy
of ligamentum flavum throughout the lumbar spine” at
L1-L2, L2-L3, L3-L4, and L4-L5, and “broad based disc
bulge caus[ing] minimal ventral impression on the thecal
sac” at ¶ 12-L1. (Tr. 287). The resulting
impression of the cervical spine showed a “broad based
disc/spur eccentric to the left at C5-C6, with moderate
ventral impression on the thecal sac and effacement of the
ventral CSF [cerebrospinal fluid]” as well as
“increased T2 signal in the cervical spinal cord in
this region suggesting edema or myelomalacia.” (Tr.
288). Another MRI from September 2006 illustrates “some
deformity of the [spinal] cord” and “mild
discogenic and spondylitic change throughout the remainder of
the thoracic spine, ” but “[n]o signal
abnormality . . . within the cord” and
“satisfactory alignment of the cervical spine.”
(Tr. 289). This left the impression of “[d]egenerative
changes, most significant at T11-T12. . . . leading to canal
stenosis and some deformity of the cord at this level.”
these MRIs, Muma continued to work at his job. He also
engaged-evidently, successfully-in physical therapy in the
following years. A physical therapy report from May 2009 has
Muma reporting “more than 50% improvement in his back
condition, ” “improvement in strength and
flexibility, ” and “independen[ce] in home
exercises.” (Tr. 279). His physical therapist, Sachin
Desai, recorded that Muma described his pain as a
“1/10” while also reporting “constant pain
and difficulty in ADLs” and “back.” (Tr.
meetings with Dr. Ellsworth over the years, Muma's
complaints frequently articulate back pain, leg pain, and
difficulty breathing. In March 2013, for instance, he
complained of “back [and] leg pain, ” seeking
medication refills. (Tr. 214). A physical revealed
“wheezing, but no respiratory distress” and
“normal respiratory rhythm and effort.” (Tr.
215). Dr. Ellsworth assessed fatigue and hyperlipidemia.
(Id.). Earlier meetings with Dr. Ellsworth rang
similarly, with physical examinations revealing at most some
mild abnormalities. E.g. (Tr. 217) (July 2012:
complaining of shoulder and neck pain; no finding of
respiratory distress; “no CVA tenderness”
although there was “restricted” flexion and
extension); (Tr. 221) (June 2012: normal physical); (Tr. 223)
(April 2012: complaining of “weak and aching of both
legs and knees buck[ling]”; normal physical); (Tr. 227)
(February 2012: normal physical); (Tr. 229) (January 2012:
same); (Tr. 230-31) (November 2011: normal physical aside
from some “[m]uscle pain and joint pain”).
Likewise, later appointments reflect few or no abnormalities
in his musculoskeletal functioning. E.g. (Tr. 311)
(June 2013) (normal physical); (Tr. 307-08) (August 2013:
complaining of back and lumbar pain “doing
poorly” while COPD improved; normal physical); (Tr.
304-05) (September 1, 2013: complaining of foot pain
following a concert two weeks before; normal physical); (Tr.