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Marijanovic v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 19, 2017

VESNA MARIJANOVIC, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          ELLEN S. CARMODY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This is an action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 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) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. The parties have agreed to proceed in this Court for all further proceedings, including an order of final judgment. (ECF No. 8.)

         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. For the reasons stated below, the Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court's jurisdiction is confined to a review of the Commissioner's decision and of the record made in the administrative hearing process. See Willbanks v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 847 F.2d 301, 303 (6th Cir. 1988). 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 fifty years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.45, 72.) She possesses a high school education from the country of Croatia and previously worked as an assembly machine tender. (PageID.74, 91.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on March 26, 2013, alleging that she had been disabled since December 12, 2012, due to issues stemming from surgery on both of her hands as well as carpal tunnel syndrome. (PageID.100, 106, 169-170.) Plaintiff's applications were denied on April 30, 2013, after which time she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (PageID.112-119, 123-125.) On December 17, 2013, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Carol Guyton for an administrative hearing at which time both Plaintiff (through an interpreter) and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.65-97.) In a written decision dated May 30, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.45-64.) On September 18, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.18-21.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action 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.

         The burden of establishing the right to benefits rests squarely on Plaintiff's shoulders, and she can satisfy her burden by demonstrating that her impairments are so severe that she is unable to perform her previous work and cannot, considering her age, education, and work experience, perform any other substantial gainful employment existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); Cohen. 964 F.2d at 528. While the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five, Plaintiff bears the burden of proof through step four of the procedure, the point at which her residual functional capacity (RFC) is determined. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997) (noting that the ALJ determines RFC at step four, at which point the claimant bears the burden of proof).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's claim failed at step four. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date of December 12, 2012. (PageID.50.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and bilateral tenosynovitis, status post carpal tunnel release and trigger thumb surgeries; (2) diabetes mellitus; (3) obesity; (4) bipolar disorder; and (5) post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (PageID.50.) 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.50-52.) 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) and 416.967(b) except she can only frequently handle with both hands. In addition, the claimant can perform unskilled work, that is, simple routine tasks involving no more than simple short instructions and simple work-related decisions with few workplace changes. The claimant can have no contact with the general public and only occasional contact with coworkers.

         (PageID.52.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ posed the above RFC in a hypothetical question to the VE.[2] In response to the ALJ's questioning, the VE testified that Plaintiff was able to return to her past relevant work as an assembly machine tender. (PageID.93.) Relying on the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing this work both as it was generally and as it was actually performed. (PageID.59.) Having made her determination at step four, the ALJ completed the analysis and entered ...


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