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Dirkse v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 29, 2016



          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 Barbara Dirkse seeks review of the Commissioner's decision denying her 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 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 fifty-three years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision and forty-seven years of age as of her date last insured.[1] She completed high school, obtained an associate's degree, and was previously employed as a receptionist and general clerk which were performed in combination. (PageID.1791, 1813.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on March 18, 2013, alleging that she had been disabled since August 1, 2007, due to congestive heart failure, cardiomyopathy, hypertension, syncopy, dysphagia, hyperglycemia, peripheral neuropathy, depression, anxiety, anemia, thyroid cyst, high calcium in the liver, emesis, environmental allergies, hyperlipedemia, and miniscus tears in both of her knees. (PageID.1821, 1878-1879.) Plaintiff's application was denied on June 14, 2013, after which time she requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.1831-1834, 1838-1839.) On April 10, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Luke A. Brennan for an administrative hearing at which time Plaintiff, Ms. Charlotte McFarland (Plaintiff's mother), and a vocational expert (VE) all testified. (PageID.1786-1819.) On July 28, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.1752-1769.) On October 2, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.1720-1723.) 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).[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). 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 Brennan determined Plaintiff's claim failed at the fourth step of the evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from her alleged disability onset date through her date last insured. (PageID.1757.) At step two, the ALJ determined that through her date last insured, Plaintiff had the severe impairments of congestive heart failure and left breast cancer, in remission. (PageID.1757-1758.) 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.1758-1759.) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a). (PageID.1759.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a receptionist as actually performed. (PageID.1761-1762.) The ALJ also included an alternative step five finding, and concluded that given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, there were other jobs that existed in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed. (PageID.1762.) In doing so, the ALJ specifically found that based on an RFC for the full range of sedentary work, Plaintiff was not disabled under Rules 201.21 and 201.22 of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines. (PageID.1762.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from August 1, 2007, through March 31, 2008. (PageID.1762.)


         Plaintiff argues the ALJ's determination that she could perform her past relevant work is unsupported by substantial evidence. She further argues the ALJ's error is not harmless because the ALJ's alternative step five erroneously relied on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines. She concludes by arguing the ALJ further erred by failing to accord sufficient ...

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