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Ross v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 2, 2017


          District Judge Stephen Murphy, III

          Anthony P. Patti Magistrate Judge


         I. RECOMMENDATION: For the reasons that follow, it is RECOMMENDED that the Court DENY AS MOOT Defendant's first motion for summary judgment (DE 15), GRANT Defendant's second/amended motion for summary judgment (DE 16), DENY Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (DE 13), and AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

         II. REPORT

         Plaintiff, Tina Ross, on behalf of Samantha Spraker, [1] brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Spraker's application for social security disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge for a Report and Recommendation on Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (DE 13), the Commissioner's memorandum in opposition and cross motion for summary judgment (DE 16), [2] and the administrative record (DE 9).

         A. Background

         Spraker filed an application for DIB in May 2012, alleging that she has been disabled since June 19, 2010. (R. at 208-209.) In June 2012, Spraker applied for SSI, also alleging June 19, 2010 as the disability onset date. (R. at 218-223.) In a disability report completed by Plaintiff for Spraker, the conditions listed preventing Spraker from working are: “bipolar, manic, depression, anxiety” and “some phycoisis[.][sic]” (R. at 248.) Spraker's applications were denied (R. at 120-129) and she sought a de novo hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. at 132-133.) ALJ Ethel Revels held a hearing on February 19, 2014. (R. at 25-77.) On May 21, 2014, ALJ Revels issued an opinion which found Spraker to not be disabled. (R. at 10-18.) On July 20, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Spraker's request for review. (R. at 1-3.) ALJ Revels' decision thus became the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff then timely commenced the instant action on behalf of Spraker.

         B. Spraker's Medical History

         A July 2011 comprehensive psychosocial assessment notes that Spraker was hospitalized in June 2010 for nineteen days due to a “Psychotic Episode with severe hallucinations[.]” (R. at 406.) In July 2010, Spraker was prescribed an antidepressant by Howard Wright, D.O. (R. at 322.) Spraker has thereafter been prescribed mental health medications, though the precise medications and dosages have varied. An adult clinical assessment from July 2010 notes that Spraker reported feeling confused and had a diminished memory of recent events. (R. at 357.) Spraker also stated then that she began using marijuana at age eighteen and until recently had smoked “1-2 joints most days.” (Id.) Treatment notes from July 2011 refer to Spraker having schizophrenia. (R. at 378.)

         Treatment notes from September 2010 (R. at 367), October 2010 (R. at 368), November 2010 (R. at 369) and August 2011 all reflect that Spraker was not suffering from hallucinations. (R. at 400.)[3] In fact, notes from March 2011 reflect that Spraker had been free of psychosis for one year. (R. at 361.)

         However, in March 2012 Spraker was hospitalized for four days because she was “delusional, incoherent.” (R. at 428.) Spraker had stopped taking her prescribed mental health medication, and had overdosed on other prescription medications. (Id.) Spraker was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and polysubstance abuse. (Id.) After counseling and medication adjustments, upon discharge Spraker “was stabilized” and showed “significant improvement in her mood and behavior . . . .” (Id.)

         In April 2012, Nathan Terey, a clinical psychotherapist, wrote a letter stating that he had been treating Spraker since August 2011. (R. at 480.) He agreed with the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and noted that she had a manic episode in which she became delusional approximately every six months. (Id.) Terey opined that “[e]ven with intensive psychotherapy Ms. Spraker will most likely continue to experience manic episodes.” (Id.)

         Spraker was again hospitalized for “bizarre behavior, and delusional thinking” in May 2012. (R. at 487-490.) The discharge notes from that hospitalization show that Spraker had improved, and had “[n]ormal judgment, ” was “[n]on-suicidal . . . [and was] able to focus on tasks, [with a] fair level of impulse control . . . .” (R. at 490.)

         In June 2013, Spraker was hospitalized after intentionally overdosing on medications. (R. at 542.) Spraker was not then suffering from hallucinations. (Id.) She tested positive for cocaine and marijuana usage. (R. at 549.) Spraker was deemed to not be in imminent danger upon discharge. (R. at 550.)

         From May 2013 through November 2013, Spraker was seen numerous times by Luay Haddad, M.D. (R. at 582-592.) In his April 24, 2013 notes, Dr. Haddad stated that Spraker's affect was appropriate, she had improvement in her goal directed thoughts process and she had no delusions or paranoid ideations. (R. at 592.) Similar positive remarks are found throughout Dr. Haddad's treatment notes.[4] Nonetheless, in December 2013, Dr. Haddad signed a mental impairment questionnaire (filled out by someone named Melad Aldaral), which states that Spraker has no useful ability in areas such as being able to function with the general public and having the ability to make simple work-related decisions, and is unable to meet competitive standards in several areas such as maintaining appropriate social behavior. (R. at 595-596.) That form also listed several side effects from Spraker's medications, including numbness in fingers and toes and memory loss. (R. at 594.)

         C. Hearing Testimony

         1. Spraker's Testimony

         At the February 19, 2014 hearing, Spraker testified that she graduated high school in 2007 and then spent about two and one-half years in college. (R. at 32.)[5]In high school she worked at a daycare and later worked as a cashier/stocker at a farmers' market. (R. at 31-32.) Spraker worked at the farmers' market on a part-time basis from 2008 to 2010. (R. at 68-69.) The ALJ concluded that only the part-time work at the farmers' market was prior relevant work. (R. at 70.)

         Spraker dropped out of college after she had what she termed an “episode” (i.e., a hallucination) in June 2010. (R. at 33-34.) Spraker tried to go to school thereafter, but dropped out due to feeling paranoid and anxious. (R. at 43.) However, she told her doctor that she dropped out of a nursing class because she stopped wanting to be a nurse after observing what nurses actually do. (R. at 43-44.) She had not used illegal drugs for about a month prior to the June 2010 episode. (R. at 34.) After the hallucination, Spraker was hospitalized and thereafter “started going to a psychiatrist and got put on medication.” (R. at 34.)

         Upon her release from the hospital in 2010, Plaintiff became Spraker's guardian, and Plaintiff's status as Spraker's guardian has been renewed annually thereafter. (R. at 36.) Spraker has difficulty making decisions, especially regarding money; she also has trouble cooking and cleaning. (R. at 36-37.) Spraker can use a microwave but not a stove. (R. at 37.) She cleans her bathroom about once a week and sometimes vacuums, but is forgetful and thus needs reminders from Plaintiff. (R. at 38.)

         As to her daily activities, Spraker usually gets up about 6 or 7 a.m., drinks coffee, colors and takes a nap or two. (R. at 39.) She also sometimes visits her aunt. (R. at 39.) Spraker does not like to drive but sometimes drives the five miles or so to her aunt's house. (R. at 39.) She has two friends with whom she talks on the phone or gets together with to watch television. (R. at 40.) She also sometimes uses Facebook. (R. at 40.)

         Spraker does not believe she can do full-time work because she becomes paranoid or anxious in public settings. (R. at 40-41.) Plaintiff has to repeatedly tell Spraker how to do things, such as laundry. (R. at 41.) Spraker last worked regularly in August 2010, but sometimes washes dishes at a restaurant owned by a friend's family. (R. at 42-43.)

         After Plaintiff testified, Spraker was asked additional questions by the ALJ. Spraker has used marijuana, cocaine (twice) and heroin, but only the marijuana usage was on a long-term basis. (R. at 59-60.) Spraker takes her prescribed medications, and Plaintiff monitors that intake. (R. at 63.)

         2. Plaintiff's Testimony

         Plaintiff's testimony began with the ALJ remarking that she did not have an “updated guardianship document in the file.” (R. at 45.) Plaintiff's counsel and the ALJ then engaged in an extended colloquy, the end result of which was counsel promised to provide the ALJ with updated guardianship documentation. (R. at 45-47.)

         Plaintiff then testified that she became Spraker's guardian in October 2010 and her guardianship had been renewed annually thereafter. (R. at 47-48.) The ALJ then interjected that “all you have to do is ask for a renewal and if there are no objections from anyone then they automatically renew it.” (R. at 48.) Plaintiff responded by asserting that Spraker has fought against having a guardian. (Id.) Shortly thereafter, the ALJ said she “accept[s]” Plaintiff's testimony. (R. at 49.) When asked by counsel why Spraker needs a guardian, Plaintiff replied that Spraker “has very bad panic modes” and sometimes hallucinates. (R. at 50.) Spraker also has stated that she can hear Plaintiff's mother and grandfather speaking, even though both are deceased. (R. at 50.) Plaintiff also has to sleep in Spraker's room two to four times per month because Spraker is afraid of the dark and fears “somebody is going to come and get her.” (R. at 51.)

         Spraker has lived with Plaintiff since June 2010. (R. at 51.) Spraker lies down to nap two to three times per day, for between forty minutes and three hours at a time. (R. at 52.) Spraker loves music and coloring, but she gets anxious when going to a store. (R. at 52-53.) Overall, Spraker's “socialism [sic] has totally diminished” to the point where she “can't socialize.” (R. at 54.) With repetitive prodding, Spraker cleans the bathroom weekly, sometimes feeds the dogs and vacuums. (R. at 55.)

         After further discussion between counsel and the ALJ, and additional testimony by Spraker, the ALJ asked Plaintiff how she makes sure Spraker takes her medications, to which Plaintiff replied that she places the medications in Spraker's hands, watches her take the medicine then makes her open her mouth to make sure she hasn't secreted the medication. (R. at 63-64.) For a few months Plaintiff trusted Spraker to take the medicines independently, but that led to Spraker trying to harm herself. (R. at 64.)

         3. Vocational Expert's Testimony

         Vocational Expert (“VE”) Donald Harrison classified Spraker's prior work as a cashier as light and semi-skilled and her prior work as a stocker as medium and unskilled. (R. at 71-72.) The ALJ then asked the VE if a hypothetical person with Spraker's age, educational level and experience and who “needs work that is simple/routine . . . [is] not . . . with the general public, [has] no more than casual interaction with co-workers . . . [and is] not . . . performed at a production pace” could perform Spraker's prior relevant work. (R. at 72-73.) The VE answered that such a hypothetical person could perform Spraker's past work as stocker, but not her prior work as a cashier. (R. at 72.) The VE testified that such a person could work at all exertional levels, and he listed several jobs which the hypothetical person could perform, including, among others, laundry checker (medium with 2, 000 jobs regionally and 100, 000 nationally), hand packer (medium with 2, 500 jobs regionally and 125, 000 nationally), small products assembler (light with 1, 800 jobs regionally and 85, 000 nationally), office cleaner (light with 2, 500 jobs regionally and 250, 000 nationally), and institutional cleaner (heavy with 1, 500 jobs regionally and 85, 000 nationally). (R. at 73-75.) When asked by Spraker's counsel, the VE stated that an employee was generally allowed one to one and one-half absences per month, so four absences monthly would be work preclusive. (R. at 76.) Finally, the VE agreed that being off task twenty percent or more of a work day would impede an individual's “ability to competitively work.” (R. at 76.)

         D. The Administrative Decision

         In her May 21, 2014 decision, the ALJ first concluded that Spraker met the insured status requirements through June 30, 2012. (R. at 12.) At Step 1 of the sequential evaluation process, [6] the ALJ found that Spraker had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of June 19, 2010. (R. at 12.)

         At Step 2, the ALJ found that Spraker had the following severe impairments: “a bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, a personality disorder, and polysubstance abuse . . . .” (R. at 13.) At Step 3, the ALJ found that Spraker did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments described in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 13.)

         Prior to undertaking Step 4 of the sequential process, the ALJ evaluated Spraker's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[7] and determined that she had the capacity to perform “a limited range of work at all exertional levels[, ]” with the following nonexertional limitations: limited to “simple, routine tasks[, ]” no working with the general public, only “casual interaction” with coworkers, no working at a production pace, and no working as a team member or in “tandem task activities.” (R. 14-15.) At Step 4, the ALJ concluded that Spraker could not perform her past relevant work as a cashier. (R. at 17.)

         At Step 5, the ALJ concluded that Spraker was capable of performing other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 17-18.) Specifically, the ALJ gave “great weight” to the VE's testimony that an individual with Spraker's age, education, work experience and RFC could work as, inter alia, a laundry checker, office cleaner and institutional cleaner. (R. at 18.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Spraker was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. at 18.)

         E. Standard of Review

         The District Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). When reviewing a case under the Social Security Act, the Court “must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it ‘is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.'” Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”). Under this standard, “substantial evidence is defined as ‘more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241 (quoting Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994)). In deciding whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the court does “not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence or decide questions of credibility.” Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007); Rogers, 486 F.3d at 247 (“It is of course for the ALJ, and not the reviewing court, to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, including that of the claimant.”). Furthermore, the claimant “has the ultimate burden to establish an entitlement to benefits by proving the existence of a disability.” Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1181 (6th Cir. 1990).

         Although the substantial evidence standard is deferential, it is not trivial. The Court must “‘take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from [the] weight'” of the Commissioner's decision. TNS, Inc. v. NLRB, 296 F.3d 384, 395 (6th Cir. 2002) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 487 (1951)). Nevertheless, “if substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, this Court defers to that finding ‘even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion.'” Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”). Finally, even if the ALJ's decision meets the substantial evidence standard, “‘a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the SSA fails to follow its own regulations and where that error prejudices a claimant on the merits or deprives the claimant of a substantial right.'” Rabbers, 582 F.3d at 651 (quoting Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007)).

         F. ANALYSIS

         1. Plaintiff's Failure to Comply with LR 7.1 and My ...

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