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Jackson v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 1, 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 Christy Jackson 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 forty-four years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.64, 139.) She completed the eleventh grade, and was previously employed as a fast food worker, assistant manager, and manager. (PageID.113-114.) Plaintiff previously applied for benefits on September 26, 2011, which resulted in an unfavorable decision by an ALJ on May 24, 2013. (PageID.120-138.) It does not appear that this application was further pursued. Rather, on June 14, 2013, Plaintiff filed a second application for benefits, alleging that she had been disabled since May 1, 2010, due to bipolar disorder, major depression, suicidal thoughts, and a limited ability to read and write. (PageID.139, 219-226.) Plaintiff's application was denied on July 18, 2014, after which time she sought a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.160-172.) In a pre-hearing brief, dated January 5, 2013, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to May 25, 2013, the day after the previous decision. (PageID.319-320.) On January 7, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ David S. Pang at which time Plaintiff, her caseworker, and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.84-118.) On March 24, 2015, the ALJ issued his written decision, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.64-83.) On January 5, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.31-37.) 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).[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 five. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her amended alleged onset date of May 25, 2013. (PageID.69.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) carpal tunnel syndrome; (2) migraines; (3) post-traumatic stress disorder; and (4) affective disorders. (PageID.70.) 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.70-72.) 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), except with no more than frequent handling, fingering, pushing, and pulling with upper extremities, and no climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds or work at unprotected heights. She is further restricted to work requiring simple, routine, repetitive tasks, with no more than occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and general public.

(PageID.72.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.77.) 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 table worker (43, 00 Michigan jobs and 229, 000 national jobs), assembler of electrical equipment (4, 200 Michigan jobs and 180, 000 national jobs), and production assembler (12, 000 Michigan jobs and 200, 000 national jobs). (PageID.114-115.) 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.78.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from May 25, 2013, through March 24, 2015, the date of decision. (PageID.78-79.)


          1. The ALJ's Analysis of the Opinion Evidence.

         On November 3, 2014, Dr. Gopal Bedi, M.D., completed a Mental RFC worksheet that offered his opinion regarding Plaintiff's limitations. (PageID.647-649.) Dr. Bedi provided a range of limitations in sixteen categories. In three, he stated Plaintiff's abilities were unlimited, or very good. In seven other categories Plaintiff had limited, but satisfactory, abilities. Her abilities were seriously limited in three categories, and she was unable to meet competitive standards in three other categories. (PageID.647-648.) Next, Dr. Bedi remarked on Plaintiff's functional limitations and opined that Plaintiff was moderately limited in activities of daily living, extremely limited in maintaining social function, and markedly limited in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace. (PageID.648.) Finally, Dr. Bedi indicated that were she to work, he would expect Plaintiff would be absent more than four days per month. (PageID.649.) The worksheet was accompanied by a one-page statement that expanded on his opinions. (PageID.650.) Plaintiff also submitted a signed declaration from Dr. Bedi, in which the doctor responded to questioning from Plaintiff's counsel. (PageID.654-656.)

         The record also contains the opinion of Dr. Ruqiya Tareen, M.D., a nonexamining agency consultant. (PageID.145.) Dr. Tareen generally found Plaintiff was less limited than that found by Dr. Bedi. For example, the doctor indicated that Plaintiff had only mild restrictions in her activities of daily living, mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning, moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace, and that Plaintiff had experienced no episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. (PageID.145.) Dr. Tareen also found that Plaintiff was not significantly limited in the ability to remember locations and work-like procedures; remember, understand, and carry out very short and simple instructions; maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; perform activities within a schedule; maintain regular attendance; sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision; work in coordination with or in proximity to others without being distracted by them; and make simple work-related decisions. The doctor also found Plaintiff would have no social interaction limitations, but would be moderately limited in the ability to carry out detailed instructions, as well in completing a normal workday or workweek without interruptions and in performing at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods. (PageID.150.)

         Plaintiff also points to an assessment update, dated November 14, 2014, from her case manager, Ms. Kimberly Jourden. Ms. Jourden remarked on the degree of Plaintiff's limitation in several different areas. She noted that Plaintiff was able to independently maintain her personal hygiene, but needed assistance in such areas as self direction, activities of daily living, and learning and recreation. Ms. Jourden also found that Plaintiff was unable to maintain her interpersonal functioning, defined as interacting appropriately, communicating effectively, and getting along with others. (PageID.579.)

         Plaintiff's first claim of error is that the ALJ erred in failing to assign controlling weight to Dr. Bedi's opinion and in assigning more weight to Dr. Tareen's opinion. (PageID.685-692.) Later, Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred in ...

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