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Shepard v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 11, 2017

MARGARET L. SHEPARD, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          HON. PAUL L. MALONEY United States District Judge.

         This is a social security action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II 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. The Commissioner has found that Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act.

         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-eight years of age as of her date last insured. (PageID.744, 765.) She possesses a high school education and previously worked as a mail carrier. (PageID.203, 948.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on July 14, 2010, alleging that she had been disabled since January 30, 2002, due to bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD) syndrome, complex regional pain syndrome, bipolar disorder, depression, lumbar spondylosis, degenerative disc disease, peripheral neuropathy, and arthritis. (PageID.126, 175-178.) Plaintiff's application was denied on November 10, 2010, after which time Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (PageID.133-137, 140-141.) On July 20, 2011, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Dennis Matulewicz for an administrative hearing at which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.86-123.) In a written decision dated August 9, 2011, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.46-65.) On August 17, 2012, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision.

         Plaintiff thereafter appealed the Commissioner's decision to United States District Court, and on November 18, 2013, District Judge Paul Borman from the Eastern District of Michigan determined the ALJ's decision was unsupported by substantial evidence and remanded the case. (PageID.840-852.) Accordingly, in an order dated May 27, 2014, the Appeals Council vacated the Commissioner's decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. (PageID.853-856.) Pursuant to the remand order, a second administrative hearing was conducted by ALJ Janice Holmes on October 9, 2014, at which time both Plaintiff and a VE testified. (PageID.760-791.) At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her onset date to June 1, 2007. (PageID.784, 924.) On December 31, 2014, ALJ Holmes issued her written decision concluding Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.739-759.) On January 14, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.686-692.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Plaintiff's insured status expired on June 30, 2007. (PageID.744.) Accordingly, to be eligible for DIB under Title II of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish that she became disabled prior to the expiration of her insured status. See 42 U.S.C. § 423; Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1182 (6th Cir. 1990).

         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).[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.

         ALJ Holmes determined Plaintiff's claim failed at step five. At step one the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period between her amended alleged disability onset date of June 1, 2007, and her date last insured of June 30, 2007. (PageID.744.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) complex regional pain syndrome / reflex sympathetic dystrophy; (2) degenerative disc disease; (3) bipolar/depression; and (4) status/post carpal tunnel release. (PageID.744.) 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.744-746.) 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) with the following: She would require a sit/stand option, at will, and would not take her off task more than 10%. She could never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and balance. She could occasionally handle, finger and feel bilaterally with the upper extremities; would have to avoid exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, and operating motor vehicles. She can perform simple, routine tasks; no contact with the public; and only occasional changes in the work setting.

(PageID.746-747.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.753.) 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 work as a machine tender with 101, 000 such positions existing in the national economy. (PageID.784-787.) 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.754.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from June 1, 2007, her amended alleged onset date, through June 30, 2007, her date last insured. (PageID.754.)

         DISCUSSION

         1. ALJ Holmes Was Not Bound by the RFC From a ...


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