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Slentz 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 Carmalene Slentz 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-four years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.45, 67.) She completed highschool, obtained an associate's degree in accounting and business, and was previously employed as a purchasing clerk, accounts clerk, and material handler. (PageID.92.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on July 15, 2013, alleging that she had been disabled since August 17, 2011, due to lower back pain with right-sided radiculopathy, right ankle pain s/p surgery, and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with radiculopathy. (PageID.97.) Plaintiff's application was denied on December 4, 2013, after which time she sought a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.112-124.) On December 17, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Donna Grit for an administrative hearing at which both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.63-95.) On January 30, 2015, the ALJ issued her written decision, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.45-62.) On January 19, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.35-40.) 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).[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.

         The ALJ determined Plaintiff's claim failed at step four. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of August 17, 2011. (PageID.50.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) residuals of a healed fracture of the right ankle including degenerative changes; (2) obesity; (3) osteoarthritis of the right hip; (4) degenerative disc disease of the thoracic and lumbar spine with sacroillitis; and (5) plantar fasciitis. (PageID.50.) 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.51.) At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform a limited range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a): she cannot lift and/or carry more than 15 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; she cannot stand and/or walk for more than a total of four hours in an eight-hour workday; and she cannot sit for more than a total of eight hours in an eight-hour workday. She also cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she cannot climb stairs/ramps more than occasionally and requires a handrail; she cannot balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl, or use foot pedals more than occasionally; and she cannot work at unprotected heights or around dangerous moving machinery.

(PageID.51-52.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ posed the above RFC in a hypothetical question to the VE.[2] In response to the ALJ's questioning, the VE testified that Plaintiff was able to return to her past relevant work as an accounting clerk and purchasing clerk as they were usually performed. (PageID.92-93.) Relying on the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of returning to her past relevant as they were generally performed. (PageID.57.) Having made her determination at step four, the ALJ completed the analysis and entered a ...

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