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Peterson v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 24, 2017

CHARLES PETERSON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          JANET T. NEFF 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 by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's decision denying his claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI 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.

         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 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-three years of age on the date of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision. (PageID.47, 98.) He completed high school and was previously employed as a buffer/sander. (PageID.70, 91.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on April 23, 2013, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2010, due to back and neck pain. (PageID.98, 108, 185-198.) Plaintiff's applications were denied on July 10, 2013, after which time he requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.123-143.) On August 8, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with his counsel before ALJ Michael Condon for an administrative hearing with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.65-96.) In a written decision dated August 29, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.47-63.) On January 28, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.32-37.) 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.

         Plaintiff has the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by his impairments and that he 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 Condon determined that Plaintiff's claim failed at the fifth step of the evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date. (PageID.52.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with disc bulging and protrusions, and degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine. (PageID.52.) At the third step, 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. (PageID.53.) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except: can stand and walk in combination for 4 hours and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday; frequently balance and climb ramps and stairs; occasionally stoop and crouch; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; never kneel or crawl; have no exposure to hazards, including unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery; and requires the option to alternate sitting and standing with sitting for up to 40 minutes then standing for up to 10 minutes before sitting again.

(PageID.53.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (PageID.57.) 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 his limitations. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform other work as a security monitor (1, 400 regional jobs and 18, 000 national jobs), order clerk (2, 300 regional jobs and 27, 000 national jobs), and inspector (2, 000 regional jobs and 17, 000 national jobs). (PageID.93.) 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.58-59.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from January 1, 2010, the alleged disability onset date, through ...


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