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Gillespie v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 17, 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 Jodi Gillespie 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.


         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 forty-six years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.86, 258.) She completed high school, and was previously employed as a waitress and table worker. (PageID.61, 1441.) Plaintiff filed for benefits on August 5, 2013, alleging that she had been disabled since April 1, 2012, due to asthma, allergies, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, joint / back pain, depression, an anxiety disorder, ADHD, acid reflux, chronic sinusitis, morbid obesity, colon polyps, and a metabolic syndrome. (PageID.42, 63, 187-199.) Plaintiff's applications were denied on March 4, 2014, after which time she sought a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.116-126.) On November 7, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Stanley Chin at which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.1403-1447.) On February 11, 2015, the ALJ issued his written decision, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.86-108.) On January 8, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.33-37.) 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), 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.

         The ALJ determined Plaintiff's claim failed at step five. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of April 1, 2012. (PageID.91.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) obesity; (2) type II diabetes mellitus (DM); (3) degenerative disc disease (with back pain); (4) thyroid nodules; (5) asthma (with chronic sinusitis); (6) gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD); (7) obstructive sleep apnea; (8) depression; (9) anxiety; and (10) attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). (PageID.91.) At step three, 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 found in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. (PageID.93-96.) At step four, 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 that the claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. She must occasionally avoid exposure to extreme cold, heat and humidity. She must also occasionally avoid exposure to environmental irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts, gases and poorly ventilated areas. She must occasionally avoid the use of moving machinery and exposure to unprotected heights. The claimant's work would be limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks, performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements involving only simple work related decisions and routine work place changes.

(PageID.96.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.106.) 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 an office helper (100, 000 national jobs), assembler (59, 000 national jobs), and garment sorter (48, 000 national jobs). (PageID.1442-1443.) 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.107.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from April 1, 2012, through February 11, 2015, the date of decision. (PageID.107-108.)


         1. Plaintiff Has Not Satisfied Her Step Three Burden.

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred at step three by failing to find that her mental impairments met or equaled the requirements of Listings 12.04 and 12.06. Specifically, she contends that a mental RFC form completed by Dr. Ravinderjit Singh, M.D., constitutes evidence that her impairments are of listing level severity. The Court disagrees.

         The “Listing of Impairments” is set forth at 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. It “describes, for each of the major body systems, impairments which are considered severe enough to prevent a person from doing any gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1525, 416.925. The medical criteria for a listing, i.e., the inability to perform “gainful activity, ” presents a higher level of severity from the statutory standard, i.e., the inability to perform “substantial gainful activity.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 532 (1990). “The reason for this difference between the listings' level of severity and the statutory standard is that, for adults, the listings were designed to operate as a presumption of disability that makes further inquiry unnecessary.” Id. At issue in this case are Listings 12.04 (affective disorders) and 12.06 (anxiety related disorders).

         A claimant bears the burden of demonstrating that she meets or equals a listed impairment at the third step of the sequential evaluation. Evans v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 820 F.2d 161, 164 (6th Cir. 1987). In order to be considered disabled under the Listing of Impairments, “a claimant must establish that [her] condition either is permanent, is expected to result in death, or is expected to last at least 12 months, as well as show that [her] condition meets or equals one of the listed impairments.” Id. An impairment satisfies the listing only when it manifests the specific findings described in the medical criteria for that particular impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1525(d), 416.925(d). A claimant does not satisfy a particular listing unless all of the requirements of the listing are present. Hale v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 816 F.2d 1078, 1083 (6th Cir. 1987); King v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 968, 973 (6th Cir. 1984); see, e.g., Thacker v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 93 F. App'x 725, 728 (6th Cir. 2004) (“[w]hen a claimant alleges that [s]he meets or equals a listed impairment, [s]he must present specific medical findings that satisfy the various tests listed in the description of the applicable impairment or present medical evidence which describes how the impairment has such equivalency”). If a claimant successfully carries this burden, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled without considering the claimant's age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d).

         Listings for mental impairments generally begin with “paragraph A” criteria which is “a set of medical findings.” 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00. Paragraph A is followed by paragraph B, which contains a “set of impairment-related functional limitations.” Id. Listings 12.04 and 12.06 also contain paragraph C criteria, which are additional functional criteria. Id. “ T h e requirements in paragraphs B and C describe impairment-related functional limitations that are incompatible with the ability to do any gainful activity.” Id. Listing 12.04 is met “when the requirements in both [paragraphs] A and B are satisfied, or when the requirements in C are satisfied.” 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.04. Similarly, Listing 12.06 is met “when the requirements in both A and B are satisfied, or when the requirements in both A and C are satisfied.” 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.06. Plaintiff contests the ALJ's paragraph B finding, claiming that it is unsupported by substantial evidence. (PageID.1454.)

         The paragraph B severity requirements of Listings 12.04 and 12.06 require at least two of the following: (1) a marked restriction of activities of daily living; (2) marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or (4) repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. A “marked” limitation is a degree of limitation that is more than moderate, but less than extreme. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(C); see also Sullenger v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 255 F. App'x 988, 993 (6th Cir. 2007). The ALJ found that Plaintiff did not meet the requirements of paragraph B because she had only mild restrictions in activities of daily living, mild ...

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