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Allen v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 2, 2016

JILL ALLEN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          PAUL L. MALONEY 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 Jill Allen seeks review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II 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). This standard affords an administrative decision maker wide latitude, and indicates that a decision supported by substantial evidence will not be reversed simply because the evidence could have supported a contrary decision. See Bogle, 998 F.2d at 347; Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545.

         PROCEDURAL POSTURE

         Plaintiff was forty-nine years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.32, 50.) She has a high school education and was previously employed as a church secretary. (PageID.50, 65.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on July 12, 2013, alleging that she had been disabled since November 30, 2012, due to arthritis in her hip and lower back, thoracic outlet syndrome, osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia. (PageID.70, 135-137.) Plaintiff's application was denied on August 21, 2013, after which time she requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.83-87.) On July 1, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with counsel before ALJ Thomas Walters for an administrative hearing at which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.46-68.) On August 13, 2014, the ALJ issued his decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.32-44.) On December 23, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.22-27.) 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).[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 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 Walters 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.37.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: (1) degenerative disc disease; (2) obesity; (3) fibromyalgia; (4) neuropathy; and (5) left shoulder disorder. (PageID.37.) 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.38.) 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) with the following limitations: the claimant can lift or carry a maximum of 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. In an eight hour workday, the claimant can walk or stand for six hours and sit for six hours. She can do no overhead work. The claimant can occasionally bend, turn, crouch, stoop, climb, crawl and kneel. She can not walk greater than 100 feet. The claimant can not work around moving machinery or unprotected heights. She can only do unskilled work with simple repetitive instructions due to pain and side effects from medication.

(PageID.38.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.40.) 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 other work as cashier (80, 000 jobs), officer helper (50, 000 jobs) and price marker (40, 000 jobs). (PageID.65-66.) Based on this record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of making a successful adjustment to ample work that exists in the national economy. (PageID.41.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from November 30, 2012, ...


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