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Weaver v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 27, 2016

CHRISTIE WEAVER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          ROBERT J. JONKER, CHIEF 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 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. Section 405(g) limits the Court to a review of the administrative record, and provides that if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it shall be conclusive.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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.

         PROCEDURAL POSTURE

         Plaintiff was forty-three years of age on her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.129, 142.) She completed high school and worked previously as a warehouse worker, secretary, and office manager. (PageID.82, 94, 230.) Plaintiff first applied for benefits on July 13, 2010, alleging that she had been disabled since November 8, 2009, due to degenerative disc disease and depression. (PageID.101.) Plaintiff's application was denied, after which time she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). On February 29, 2012, Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Nicholas Ohanesian for an administrative hearing. (PageID.114.) In a written decision dated March 30, 2012, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.111-128.)

         Plaintiff did not further pursue this application, but instead reapplied for benefits on May 11, 2013, this time alleging that she had been disabled since March 31, 2012, the day after the prior decision, due to degenerative disc disease, sciatica, chronic bronchitis, anxiety, coronary artery disease, and major depression. (PageID.129, 142, 214-215.) These applications were also denied, after which time Plaintiff again requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.159-172.) On June 16, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ William Reamon with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (PageID.71-98.) In a written decision dated September 26, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.45-69.) The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's determination, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.36-41.) This action followed, seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         ALJ'S DECISION

         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.

         ALJ Reamon determined Plaintiff's claim failed at step five. The ALJ began his discussion by first stating that he found no new and material evidence had been entered into the record since the prior decision. (PageID.48.) Accordingly, he indicated that he had adopted the RFC from the prior decision consistent with Sixth Circuit and agency authority. (PageID.48.) Proceeding with the analysis, at step one, ALJ Reamon found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.51.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) coronary artery disease; (2) degenerative disc disease to the lumbar spine; (3) hypertension; (4) obesity; (5) an affective disorder; and (6) anxiety. (PageID.51.) 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 4. If an individual is capable of performing work he or she has done in the past, a finding of “not disabled” must be made (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e)); 5. If an individual's impairment is so severe as to preclude the performance of past work, other factors including age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity must be considered to determine if other work can be performed. (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f)). found in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. (PageID.51-53.) At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) with exceptions. Specifically, the claimant is able to lift up to 10 pounds occasionally. She requires the option to alternate between sitting and standing positions at 15-minute intervals throughout the workday. The claimant is able to climb stairs and ramps occasionally, but is never to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She is able to frequently balance and occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. She must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, heat, humidity, vibration and exposure to pulmonary irritants, such as fumes, odors, dusts, gases and poorly ventilated areas. Mentally, her work is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks.

(PageID.54.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.62.) 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 production assembler (2, 400 Michigan jobs and 28, 000 national jobs), inspector tester (700 Michigan jobs and 13, 000 national jobs), and machine operator (1, 300 Michigan jobs and 44, 000 national jobs). (PageID.95.) 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.64.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from March 31, 2012, through September 26, 2014, the date of decision. (PageID.64.)

         DISCUSSION

         In assessing Plaintiff's present claim for benefits, ALJ Reamon indicated he adopted the RFC findings previously articulated by ALJ Ohanesian. (PageID.48.) Plaintiff argues that because her physical and mental impairments worsened subsequent to ALJ Ohanesian's decision, the decision by ALJ Reamon to adopt this previous RFC is not supported by substantial evidence. The issue of whether or when a subsequent ALJ must follow an RFC determination articulated by a prior ALJ has been addressed by the Sixth Circuit in Dennard v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 907 F.2d 598 (6th Cir.1990) and Drummond v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 126 F.3d 837 (6th Cir. 1997), as well as by the Social Security Administration in Acquiescence Rulings 98-3(6) and 98-4(6).

         A. Dennard v. Secretary of ...


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