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Dewey v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 24, 2017




         This is a social security action brought under 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. 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.


         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.


         Plaintiff was forty years of age on the date of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision. (PageID.26, 52.) He has a high school education and previously worked as a snow remover, car detailer, and automobile porter. (PageID.55, 73.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on September 27, 2013, alleging that he had been disabled since September 20, 2013, due to a bad back, ADHD, anxiety, and depression. (PageID.107, 169-175.) Plaintiff's application was denied on November 5, 2013, and Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.120-123, 126-127.) On October 9, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with his counsel before ALJ Paul W. Jones for an administrative hearing at which time Plaintiff, his wife, and a vocational expert (VE) all testified. (PageID.44-105.) In a written decision dated November 14, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.26-42.) Thereafter, on February 22, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision. (PageID.16-21.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         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 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 Jones determined Plaintiff's claim failed at step four. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 20, 2013, the alleged disability onset date. (PageID.31.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1)degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine;(2)Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD); and (3)a generalized anxiety disorder. (PageID.31-32.) 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.32-33.) At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments to perform:

medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c). He can lift up to 50 pounds occasionally, and lift/carry up to 25 pounds frequently; only occasionally climb ramps or stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally stoop; and frequently balance, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks with only occasional changes in the work setting.

(PageID.33.) 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 capable of returning to his past relevant work. (PageID.81.) Relying on this testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's claim failed at step four, as his past relevant work did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by his RFC. (PageID.37.) Having made his determination at step four, the ALJ was not required to proceed to step five, however, the ALJ also included an alternative step five finding that Plaintiff was able to perform work in other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Again relying on VE testimony, the ALJ found Plaintiff was able to perform work as a dishwasher (80, 000 positions), inspector (100, 000 positions), and machine operator (60, 000 positions). (PageID.38, 82.) 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.38.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from September 20, 2013, through November 14, 2014, the date of decision. (PageID.38-39.)


         1. The ALJ's Decision is Not ...

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