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Phillips v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 17, 2016

CHRISTA L. PHILLIPS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant

          OPINION

          HON. GORDON J. QUIST 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 Christa Phillips 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 forty years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision (PageID.48, 106.) She completed two years of college, and was previously employed as a secretary. (PageID.232.) Plaintiff filed for benefits on April 15, 2014, alleging that she had been disabled since September 5, 2013, due to an intramedullary spinal tumor, S/P C2-4 laminectomy, and resection of the tumor.[1](PageID.106, 174-108.) Plaintiff's application was denied on July 11, 2014, after which time she sought a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.118-124.) On August 27, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Davida Isaacs during which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.72-104.) On September 23, 2015, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, finding Plaintiff was disabled from her alleged onset date through September 30, 2014, but not thereafter. (PageID.48-71.) On December 15, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.33-38.) 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).[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), 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.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of September 5, 2013. (PageID.56.) At step two, the ALJ found that at all times relevant to the decision, Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, status-post intramedullary spinal tumor resection and laminectomy, optic meningioma, and obesity. (PageID.56.) At step three, the ALJ found that at all relevant times, Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the requirements of the Listing of Impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. (PageID.56.)

         1. Plaintiff's Condition Prior to October 1, 2014.

         The ALJ decided at the fourth step that prior to October 1, 2014, Plaintiff had 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 could only occasionally lift and carry up to ten pounds and frequently lift and carry up to five pounds. She could no more than occasionally push/pull with her non-dominant left arm. She could no more than occasionally flex or extend her neck or reach overhead. She had to shift position, such as standing up, every fifteen minutes while remaining on-task. The claimant could never balance on uneven surfaces. She required an assistive device to climb stairs or ramps. She could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant had no depth perception and could not perform work requiring any visual acuity on the right. She would be absent from work three to four days per month due to pain.

(PageID.57.) Based on testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that under the above RFC, Plaintiff could not perform any of her past relevant work, and that there were no other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed. (PageID.60-61.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was under a disability from her alleged onset date through September 30, 2014. (PageID.61.)

         2. Plaintiff's Condition Since October 1, 2014.

         The ALJ decided that as of October 1, 2014, Plaintiff underwent medical improvement, and that it was related to her ability to work. (PageID.62.) The ALJ found that as of October 1, 2014, Plaintiff then retained the RFC:

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she can only occasionally lift and carry up to ten pounds and frequently lift and carry up to five pounds. She can no more than occasionally push/pull with her non-dominant left arm. She can no more than occasionally flex or extend her neck or reach overhead. She has to shift position, such as standing up, every fifteen minutes while remaining on-task. The claimant can never balance on uneven surfaces. She requires an assistive device to climb stairs or ramps. She can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant has no depth perception and cannot perform work requiring any visual acuity on the right.

(PageID.63.) The ALJ next determined that Plaintiff would still be unable to perform her past relevant work as a secretary. (PageID.65.) 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 since October 1, 2014. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform the following work: parking booth cashier (50, 000 national jobs), production inspector (30, 000 national jobs), and office helper (70, 000 national jobs). (PageID.100-102.) Based on this record, the ...


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