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Schaub v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 20, 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 Febra Schaub seeks review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II 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 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.


         Plaintiff was fifty-two years of age on the date of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision. (PageID.181, 208.) She completed high school, obtained a certificate from community college, and was previously employed as a billing clerk. (PageID.209. 234.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on March 8, 2013, alleging that she had been disabled since December 18, 2002 due to depression, anxiety, panic attacks, trouble sleeping, and fatigue.[1] (PageID.239, 300-301.) Plaintiff's application was denied on August 27, 2013, after which time she requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.249-252, 255-256.) On September 3, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Donna Grit for an administrative hearing, with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.203-236.) On October 14, 2014, the ALJ issued her written decision that found Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.181-202.) On November 24, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.19-25.) 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. § 404.1520(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). 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.

         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.

         ALJ Grit determined that Plaintiff's claim failed at the fourth step of the evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 3, 2012, her amended alleged onset date. (PageID.186.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: (1) hammertoes of fifth digit of bilateral feet; (2) history of left medial meniscectomy with left knee degenerative changes; (3) fibromyalgia; and (4) degenerative changes of the right shoulder / adhesive capsulitis, s/p arthroscopy. (PageID.186.) 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.189-190.) At the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform less than a full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). The claimant could lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; and in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks, she could stand and walk for a total of about 6 hours and could sit for a total of about 6 hours. She could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; could occasionally stoop, crouch, crawl, kneel and balance; should have only occasional exposure to extremes of cold and dampness; and should not work at unprotected heights.

(PageID.190.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a billing clerk. The ALJ determined that this work did not require the performance of work-related activities that would be precluded by Plaintiff's RFC. (PageID.195-196.) Having made her determination, the ALJ completed her analysis and was not required to proceed further.

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled at any point from her amended alleged onset date through the date of decision. (PageID.196.)


         1.The ALJ Properly Considered The Medical Opinions in the Record.

         Plaintiff submitted several opinions from medical professionals in support of her application for benefits. In her first claim of error, Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred in failing to assign controlling weight to these opinions, and erred in giving great weight to the ...

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