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Hart v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 30, 2016

TODD HART, Plaintiff,


          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 Todd Hart seeks review of the Commissioner's decision denying his 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 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-two years of age on the date of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision. (PageID.39, 203.) He obtained a GED, and was previously employed as an electrician, maintenance technician, truck driver, and material handler. (PageID.72, 86.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on April 17, 2012, alleging that he had been disabled since December 20, 2009, due to anxiety attacks, bipolar disorder, herniated discs in his neck and back, depression, sleep apnea, and pain. (PageID.149-61, 208.) Plaintiff's applications were denied on August 16, 2012, after which time he requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.97-109.) On August 20, 2013, Plaintiff appeared with his counsel before ALJ Joel Fina for an administrative hearing with testimony being offered by Plaintiff, a medical expert, and a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.58-92.) In a written decision dated August 28, 2013, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.39-57.) On December 24, 2014, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.28-32.) 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 his impairments and that he 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 Fina determined Plaintiff's claim failed at the fifth step of the evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date. (PageID.44.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: (1) extreme morbid obesity; (2) degenerative disc disease at ¶ 5-S1; (3) degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; and (4) adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood. (PageID.44.) 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.45-46.) At the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to lift up to twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, stand or walk for up to two hours a day[] for up to thirty minutes at a time and sit for up to six hours per day for up to two hours at a time, with normal breaks. Claimant is able to perform work with not more than occasional balancing, stooping, crouching, kneeling, crawling, and climbing of ramps/stairs. Claimant's work can involve no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. Claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to vibration, or all exposure to unprotected heights. Claimant's work is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, with only occasional interaction with the public and co-workers.

(PageID.47.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (PageID.53.)

         At the fifth step, the ALJ questioned the VE to determine whether a significant number of jobs exist in the economy which Plaintiff could perform given his limitations. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The VE testified that there existed approximately 4, 800 jobs in the state of Michigan in the positions of sorter, inspector, and assembler that an individual similar to Plaintiff could perform. (PageID.87-88.) This represents a significant number of jobs. See Hall v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 272, 274 (6th Cir. 1988); McCormick v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 861 F.2d 998, 1000 (6th Cir. 1988).

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled at any point from December 20, 2009, (the alleged onset date), through August 28, 2013, (the date of the decision). (PageID.54.)


         1.The ALJ's Step Two Determination.

         At the second step in the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe mental impairment of adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood. (PageID.44-45.) In doing so, it appears the ALJ credited the opinion of David R Cashbaugh Jr., a limited licensed psychologist and agency consultant, as well as Dr. Kenneth Parada's impression that Plaintiff had an “adjustment disorder with mixed emotions of anxiety and depression, personality disorder along with cluster B traits.” (PageID.304-305, 333.) Plaintiff argues, however, that the ALJ should have also found that his bipolar disorder was a severe mental impairment. (PageID.448-449.)

         Plaintiff points to a two page discharge note from Alpena General Hospital completed on August 25, 2011. While the handwritten note is admittedly difficult to read, the note is clear enough to see that Plaintiff was admitted to the hospital for eighteen days due to anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and suicidal ideations. (PageID.389-90.) The record also contains several references to this hospitalization, including Plaintiff's testimony at the administrative hearing. (PageID.83, 275, 343, 356.)

         A severe impairment is defined as “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c), and which lasts or can be expected to last “for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Basic work activities include: (1) physical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, or handling; (2) capacities for seeing, hearing, and speaking; (3) understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; (4) use of judgment; (5) responding appropriately to supervision, co-workers and usual work ...

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