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Rios v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 28, 2016

OSCAR RIOS, JR., Plaintiff,


          JANET T. NEFF 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 by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). Plaintiff Oscar Rios seeks review of the Commissioner's decision denying his 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 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-four years of age on the date of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision. (PageID.46, 70.) He completed the tenth grade, and was previously employed as a forklift driver and assembly line worker. (PageID.71, 89.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on February 27, 2013, alleging that he had been disabled since August 1, 2008, due to type II diabetes, hepatitis, depression, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia. (PageID.97-98, 152-153.) Plaintiff's application was denied on August 13, 2013, after which time he requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.117-127.) On June 19, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with his counsel before ALJ Lawrence Blatnik for an administrative hearing with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.65-95.) In a written decision dated August 15, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.46-64.) On December 21, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.32-36.) 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).[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). 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 his impairments and that he 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 Blatnik determined that 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 his alleged disability onset date. (PageID.51.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: (1) degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; (2) diabetes with neuropathy; (3) degenerative arthritis with torn meniscus of the left knee; (4) hepatitis C with cirrhosis of the liver; (5) obesity; (6) depression; (7) a cognitive disorder; and (8) a history of substance abuse. (PageID.51.) 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.51-52.) 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). He can lift or carry a maximum of 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand, walk and sit for at least six hours of an eight-hour shift; can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; only occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl, squat or climb ramps and stairs; is limited to only occasional exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold and humidity; can never use air, pneumatic, power, torque or vibratory tools; and never work with dangerous or unprotected machinery or at unprotected heights. Furthermore, he is able to understand, remember and carry out only short simple instructions; and is limited to simple unskilled work with SVP rating of 1 or 2; work that involves only occasional contact with, and occasional direction from, a supervisor; work requiring only brief and superficial contact with the public; and routine work that does not require frequent significant changes or adaptations.

(PageID.53.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his 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 his limitations. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform other work as a hand packer (50, 000 jobs), bench hand (60, 000 jobs), press operator (60, 000 jobs), and cashier (70, 000 jobs). (PageID.90-91.) 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 August 1, 2008 through August 15, 2014. (PageID.59.)


         1. The ALJ's RFC Determination is Supported by Substantial Evidence.

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ “never explains” in his RFC discussion “how someone with the severe impairments found by the ALJ can do the exertional demands of light work.” (PageID.1188.) But it is not entirely clear from Plaintiff's brief exactly how the ALJ may have erred.

         To the extent that Plaintiff claims his severe impairments should have led the ALJ to find him disabled, Plaintiff is mistaken. Whether a claimant has a “severe impairment” is determined at step two of the sequential evaluation, and defined as an impairment or combination of impairments “which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). A claimant's RFC is determined at step four of the sequential evaluation. See Gentry v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 741 F.3d 708, 722 (6th Cir. 2014). RFC is a medical assessment of what an individual can do in a work setting in spite of functional limitations and environmental restrictions imposed by all of his medically determinable impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. RFC is defined as “the maximum degree to which the individual retains the capacity for sustained performance of the physical-mental requirements of jobs” on a regular and continuing basis. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, § 200.00(c); see Cohen, 964 F.2d 524, 530 (6th Cir. 1992). “A claimant's severe impairment may or may not affect his or her functional capacity to do work.” Griffeth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 217 F. App'x 425, 429 (6th Cir. 2007). This is because “[t]he regulations recognize that individuals who have the same severe impairment may have different RFC's depending on their other impairments, pain, and other symptoms.” Griffeth, 217 F. App'x at 429 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(e)); see, e.g., West v. Colvin, No. 5:14-69-KKC, 2014 WL 7177925, at *4 (E.D. Ky. Dec. 6, 2014) (“[t]he ALJ is not required to incorporate all ‘severe impairments' in her RFC assessment”). In formulating the RFC, “the ALJ need only articulate how the ...

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