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Emmorey v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 20, 2017

JACKIE EMMOREY, 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) under Title II 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. 11). 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 and Human Services, 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 and Human Services, 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 Dep't of Health and Human Services, 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 in the record fairly detracts from its weight. See Richardson v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 735 F.2d 962, 963 (6th Cir. 1984). As has been widely recognized, 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 55 years of age on his alleged disability onset date. (PageID.212). He successfully completed high school and previously worked as a headlight assembler, metal building assembler, maintenance worker, and die setter. (PageID.104, 228). Plaintiff applied for benefits on December 9, 2013, alleging that he had been disabled since January 9, 2011, due to illiteracy, bad back, bone spur on his toe, tendonitis in both elbows, and broken collarbones. (PageID.212-13, 227). Plaintiff's applications were denied, after which time he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (PageID.116-208).

         On October 29, 2014, Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Paul Greenberg with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (PageID.70-114). In a written decision dated February 19, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.59-65). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's determination, rendering it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.47-51). Plaintiff subsequently initiated this appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision.

         ANALYSIS OF THE 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 his residual functional capacity. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945.

         The burden of establishing the right to benefits rests squarely on Plaintiff's shoulders, and he can satisfy his burden by demonstrating that his impairments are so severe that he is unable to perform his previous work, and cannot, considering his 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 his residual functioning 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) (ALJ determines RFC at step four, at which point claimant bears the burden of proof).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from degenerative disc disease, a severe impairment that whether considered alone or in combination with other impairments, failed to satisfy the requirements of any impairment identified in the Listing of Impairments detailed in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (PageID.60-62). With respect to Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform medium work[2] subject to the following limitations: (1) he can only frequently climb ramps or stairs; (2) he can only frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; and (3) he can only occasionally climb ladders or scaffolds. (PageID.62). A vocational expert testified that, if limited to the extent reflected in the ALJ's RFC determination, Plaintiff could still perform his past relevant work as a headlight assembler and maintenance worker. (PageID.103-05). The ALJ concluded, therefore, that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits.

         I. Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity

         A claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) represents his ability to perform “work-related physical and mental activities in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis, ” defined as “8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule.” Social Security Ruling 96-8P, 1996 WL 374184 at *1 (Social Security Administration, July 2, 1996); see also, Payne v. Commissioner of Social Security, 402 Fed.Appx. 109, 116 (6th Cir., Nov. 18, 2010). As noted above, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retained the ability to perform a range of medium work. Plaintiff argues that he is entitled to relief because the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that he is limited to light work. The scant medical evidence, however, supports the ALJ's conclusion.

         On June 19, 2012, Plaintiff was examined by Physician's Assistant, Amy Werling. (PageID.329-32). Plaintiff reported that he was experiencing persistent back pain. (PageID.329). Straight leg raising was negative and an examination of Plaintiff's lumbar spine revealed “pain free active ROM [range of motion] with no limiting factors.” (PageID.331). An examination of Plaintiff's lower extremities revealed “normal” strength with no evidence of neurovascular abnormality. (PageID.331). Plaintiff was prescribed medication and and instructed to perform back stretching exercises. (PageID.331).

         A September 20, 2012, examination revealed “normal range of motion, muscle strength, and stability in all extremities with no pain on palpation.” (PageID.327). An examination of Plaintiff's lumbar spine revealed “no. . .tenderness with “normal mobility and curvature.” (PageID.327). Plaintiff reported that his “symptoms are relieved by walking.” (PageID.326). Plaintiff was advised to participate in physical therapy. (PageID.327). A December 17, 2012 examination revealed similar findings. (PageID.322-25).

         On June 18, 2013, Plaintiff was examined by Dr. R. Scott Lazzara. (PageID.347-51). Plaintiff reported that he experiences “chronic back pain.” (PageID.347). Plaintiff reported that he discontinued working, not because of any impairment, but because “he was having issues with co-workers.” (PageID.347). Plaintiff reported that he now “mostly spends his time working on his tractor at home.” (PageID.347). Plaintiff reported that he had not participated in physical therapy. (PageID.347). A musculoskeletal examination revealed:

There is no evidence of joint laxity, crepitance, or effusion. Grip strength remains intact. Dexterity is unimpaired. The patient could pick up a coin, button clothing and open a door. The patient had no difficulty getting on and off the examination table, mild difficulty heel and toe walking, mild difficulty squatting, and no difficulty hopping. There is thoracic ...

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