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VanderHoff v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 25, 2016

ALISA VANDERHOFF, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          ROBERT J. JONKER, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         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 Alisa VanderHoff seeks review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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.

         PROCEDURAL POSTURE

         Plaintiff was fifty-two years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.44, 70.) She completed the tenth grade, and was previously employed as a laundry counter clerk. (PageID.72, 97.) Plaintiff filed for benefits on July 2, 2012, alleging that she had been disabled since April 1, 2012, due to problems associated with her liver and pancreas, kidney stones, short term memory problems, and frequent urinary tract infections. (PageID.106, 122, 186-197.) Plaintiff's applications were denied on January 15, 2013, after which time she sought a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.141-148, 152-153.) On June 25, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel for an administrative hearing before ALJ Nicholas Ohanesian at which both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.64-104.) On August 28, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.44-63.) On December 16, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.29-34.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         ALJ'S DECISION

         The social security regulations articulate a five-step sequential process for evaluating disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a-f), 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. §§ 404.1520(a), 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. §§ 404.1545, 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.

         ALJ Ohanesian determined 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 her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.49.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: (1) alcohol induced cirrhosis with associated pancreatitis; (2) chronic thrombocytopenia and diarrhea; (3) gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD); (4) pyelonephritis with recurrent urinary tract infections; (5) hypertension; (6) degenerative joint disease of the left knee; (7) migraine headaches; (8) obesity; (9) anxiety disorder; (10) dysthymic disorder; (11) borderline personality disorder; and (12) alcohol abuse in recent remission. (PageID.59.) 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.50-51.) 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 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she cannot balance, [stoop], kneel, crouch, crawl, or climb stairs/ramps more than occasionally; she cannot work with more than frequent exposure to unprotected heights or hazardous machinery; she cannot perform more than simple, routine, repetitive tasks; and she cannot maintain contact with the general public or more than occasional contact with co-workers and supervisors.

(PageID.52.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.57.) 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: cleaner / housekeeping (8, 000 Michigan jobs), assembler (10, 000 Michigan jobs), and inspector / packager (9, 000 Michigan jobs). (PageID.99-100). 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.58.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from April 1, 2012, through August 28, 2014, ...


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