United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division
J. JONKER, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
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).
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.
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.)
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).
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). 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.
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.
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
(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.)
the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from March
31, 2012, through September 26, 2014, the date of decision.
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).
Dennard v. Secretary of ...