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Muma v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Northern Division

October 19, 2016

MARK MUMA, Plaintiff,


          Patricia T. Morris, United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. OPINION

         A. Introduction and Procedural History

         Pursuant 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).

         On 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).

         B. Standard of Review

         The 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).

         The 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 omitted).

         C. Framework for Disability Determinations

         Under 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 analysis.
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 analysis.
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)).

         Under 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.

         D. ALJ Findings

         Following 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 additional limitations:

[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).

         E. Administrative Record

         1. Medical Evidence

         Muma 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).

         In 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.” (Id.).

         After 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. 272).

         In his 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. ...

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