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Zuber v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 29, 2016

ANA M. ZUBER, Plaintiff,



         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 Ana Zuber 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-nine years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.36, 61.) She completed high school, and was previously employed as a resident care aide. (PageID.62, 90.) Plaintiff has applied for benefits on several occasions. She first applied for DIB on November 12, 2004. (PageID.526.) That application resulted in an unfavorable decision on January 27, 2006, by ALJ William E. Decker. (PageID.523-536.) Instead of appealing that decision, it appears Plaintiff filed a new application for DIB as well as an application for SSI in February 2006. (PageID.39.) These applications were also denied. (PageID.39.) Plaintiff thereafter again filed new applications for DIB and SSI on November 1, 2012, the applications at issue here. (PageID.153-167, 537, 555.) In these applications, Plaintiff alleged that she had been disabled since June 27, 2012, due to degenerative disc disease, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, high blood pressure, and diabetes. (PageID.212.) Plaintiff's applications were denied on March 26, 2013, after which time she sought a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.91-111.) On March 7, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Donna Grit, during which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.57-95.) On June 27, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.36-56.) On December 19, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.29-31.) 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.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of June 27, 2012. (PageID.41.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine; (2) degenerative changes of the right knee; (3) fibromyalgia; (4) obesity; (5) obstructive sleep apnea; (6) depression; and (7) anxiety. (PageID.41-42.) 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.43-45.) 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 stoop, crouch, crawl, or perform overhead activities more than occasionally and she cannot understand, remember, or perform more than simple tasks or make more than simple work-related judgments. She can adapt to routine changes in the workplace.

(PageID.45.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.49-50.) 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 a cafeteria attendant (4, 200 Michigan jobs and 48, 000 national jobs), cleaner (6, 200 Michigan jobs and 70, 000 national jobs), and machine tender (4, 500 Michigan jobs and 38, 000 national jobs). (PageID.92-93.) 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.51.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled at any point through June 27, 2014, the date of decision. (PageID.51.)


         1. Plaintiff Has Not Shown How the ALJ May Have Erred In ...

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