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Hilts v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 13, 2017

DONNETTE HILTS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY. Defendant.

          OPINION

          GORDON J. QUIST 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) denying Plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security 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 thirty-three years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.66, 140.) She previously obtained a high school education and had been employed as an inspector and fiberglass laminator. (PageID.92, 131-132.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on November 13, 2012, alleging that she had been disabled since December 11, 2010, due to rheumatoid arthritis and depression. (PageID.140, 193-199.) This application was denied on May 10, 2013, after which time Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.155-160.) On July 18, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ JoErin O'Leary for an administrative hearing at which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.87-138.) On September 3, 2014, the ALJ issued her written decision, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.66-86.) On February 8, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.31-35.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Plaintiff's insured status expired on June 30, 2014. (PageID.140.) 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.

         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 during the period between her alleged disability onset date and her date last insured. (PageID.71.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of inflammatory arthritis and fibromyalgia. (PageID.71-73.) 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.73.) 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 she can only occasionally do bilateral handling and fingering. She can only occasionally perform postural maneuvers such as climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling.

(PageID.73.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.80.) 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 in the following representative jobs: assembler (55, 000 positions), machine operator(55, 000 national positions), and inspector (55, 000 national positions). (PageID.133-134.) 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.81.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from December 11, 2010, through June 30, 2014, the date last insured. (PageID.56.)

         DISCUSSION

         1.The ALJ's Analysis of Dr. Tania Lebaron's Opinions.

         Beginning in late 2010, Dr. Lebaron treated Plaintiff for her rheumatoid arthritis. During the course of this treatment, Dr. Lebaron completed several temporary work restrictions that either removed Plaintiff from all work or limited Plaintiff to only certain types of work. (PageID.396, 399-400, 405, 407-408, 413.) On September 28, 2011, in a note similar to previous letters, Dr. Lebaron indicated that Plaintiff “may return to work 10/1/2011. She may work a maximum of 6 hours per day and 20 hours per week.” (PageID.395.) Thus, the note indicated that Plaintiff was unable to perform full time work. Moreover, contrary to the previous notes, this note did not indicate an end date regarding the restriction. Sometime later, on May 19, 2014, Dr. Lebaron completed a medical source statement regarding Plaintiff's limitations. Among other things, the doctor indicated Plaintiff could occasionally lift and/or carry twenty-five pound weights, and frequently lift and/or carry ten pound weights. (PageID.693.) Plaintiff could stand or walk about six hours in an eight hour workday, and Dr. Lebaron noted Plaintiff's ability to sit was not affected by her impairments. (PageID.693-694.) Plaintiff also could only occasionally perform activities such as climbing, balancing, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and stooping. (PageID.694.) Finally, she was limited to only occasionally handling and fingering. (PageID.695.) There was no indication, however, that Plaintiff was limited to less than full time work. The ALJ gave “some weight” to the September 29, 2011 opinion and “great weight” to the May 19, 2014, letter. (PageID.79-80.)

         In her first and second claim of error, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ should have given controlling weight to the September 28, 2011, opinion under the treating physician rule, and further erred by picking and choosing from Dr. Lebaron's opinions. The Court disagrees.

         By way of background, the treating physician doctrine recognizes that medical professionals who have a long history of caring for a claimant and her maladies generally possess significant insight into her medical condition. See Barker v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 789, 794 (6th Cir. 1994). An ALJ must, therefore, give controlling weight to the opinion of a treating source if: (1) the opinion is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques” and (2) the opinion “is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record.” Gayheart v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 710 F.3d 365, 375-76 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527). It is undisputed Dr. Lebaron qualifies as a treating physician.

         Such deference is appropriate, however, only where the particular opinion “is based upon sufficient medical data.” Miller v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 1991 WL 229979, at *2 (6th Cir. Nov. 7, 1991) (citing Shavers v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 839 F.2d 232, 235 n.1 (6th Cir. 1987)). The ALJ may reject the opinion of a treating physician where it is unsupported by the medical record, merely states a conclusion, or is contradicted by substantial medical evidence. See Cohen, 964 F.2d at 528; Miller, 1991 WL ...


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