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Thomas v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 13, 2017

ERICKA M. THOMAS, Plaintiff,



         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 that she was no longer entitled to supplemental security income (SSI).


         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.


         The ALJ summarized the procedural history of this case as follows:

In an initial determination from October 2005, the claimant was found disabled as of October 1, 1995 pertaining to her claims for supplemental security income and childhood disability insurance (on the record of CM Thomas). The claimant's disability was subsequently determined to have continued in a determination dated November 29, 2005 (Exhibit 3F).
The Social Security Administration completed a second continuing disability review and, on July 24, 2012, it determined that the claimant was no longer disabled as of July 1, 2012. This determination was upheld upon reconsideration after a disability hearing by a State agency Disability Hearing Officer. Thereafter, the claimant filed [a] timely written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge.

         (PageID.36.) From there, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ James Prothro for an administrative hearing on June 26, 2014. (PageID.48-96.) On September 12, 2014, the ALJ issued his decision finding that Plaintiff was no longer disabled. (PageID.33-47.) On January 11, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review, making it the Commissioner's final decision. (PageID.28-31.) This action followed.


         ALJs employ an eight-step sequential analysis in Title II claims and seven steps in Title XVI claims when assessing a continuation of benefits case. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f). Steps two through eight in Title II claims mirror steps one through seven in Title XVI. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f), 416.994(b). Title II, unlike Title XVI, has one addition step to begin the analysis: namely whether the individual is engaging in substantial gainful activity. If the answer was yes, the individual's disability has ended. If no, the analysis continues through the following steps.

         Step two of Title II (step one of Title XVI) is an examination of whether the individual had an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or equals the severity of a listed impairment. If the answer was yes, disability continues. Step three (step two of Title XVI) is an inquiry as to whether there had been medical improvement. Step four (step three of Title XVI) is an examination whether the medical improvement is related to the individual's ability to perform work. Step five (step four of Title XVI) is an analysis conducted if there has been no medical improvement or the medical improvement is not related to the individual's ability to perform work. Step six (step five of Title XVI) is a determination whether the individual's current impairments are severe. If there is no severe impairment, the individual is not disabled. Step seven (step six of Title XVI) is an assessment of the claimant's “ability to do substantial gainful activity” in accordance with 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560, 416.960. That is, the ALJ determines the individual's residual functional capacity (RFC) based on all her current impairments and considers whether she can perform past relevant work. If she can perform such work, she is not disabled. Finally step eight (step seven of Title XVI) is an administrative finding whether the individual can perform other work in light of her age, education, work experience and RFC. If she is capable of performing other work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f), 416.994(b); see also Hagans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 694 F.3d 287, 307-08 (3d Cir. 2012); Delph v. Astrue, 538 F.3d 940, 945-46 (8th Cir. 2008).

         The ALJ began his discussion by finding that the administrative decision dated November 29, 2005, was the most recent favorable decision that Plaintiff was disabled. It was “the ‘comparison point decision' or CPD.” (PageID.38.) At the time of the CPD, Plaintiff had the medically determinable impairment of asthma that was severe enough to meet the requirements of Section 3.03B of the Listing of Impairments (“Listings”). (PageID.38.) Continuing with the analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had never engaged in substantial gainful activity, including the period since July 1, 2012, the date her disability ended. (PageID.38.) The ALJ next found that the medical evidence established that as of July 1, 2012, Plaintiff had the medically determinable impairments of: (1) asthma; (2) migraine headaches (cervicalgia); (3) status-post left shoulder SLAP lesion surgery [January 2014] with left-sided neck pain; (4) degenerative disc disease with low back pain; (5) depression; (6) anxiety; and (7) opioid dependence [Vicodin, Dilaudid]. (PageID.39.) The ALJ determined these were Plaintiff's severe impairments. (PageID.39.) Next, the ALJ found that since July 1, 2012, these impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of any listed impairment, including Listings 1.02, 1.04, 1.08, 3.02, 3.03, 12.04, and 12.06. (PageID.39.) The ALJ continued by finding that medical improvement occurred as of July 1, 2012, and that this improvement was related to ...

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