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Lambeth v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 6, 2017

GERI C. LAMBETH, Plaintiff,


          PAUL L. MALONEY United States District Judge.

         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 Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title 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.


         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-seven years of age as of the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.49, 79.) She obtained a high school education and was previously employed as a fast food worker and waitress. (PageID.79, 92-93.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on June 3, 2012, alleging that she had been disabled since February 1, 2005, due to arthritis in her left shoulder, panic attacks, and numbness from her hands to her elbows. (PageID.98, 116, 241-246.) Plaintiff's application was denied on May 8, 2014, and again upon reconsideration on September 10, 2014, after which time she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (PageID.138-141, 146-154.) On May 28, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Theresa Jenkins for an administrative hearing at which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.73-96.) In a written decision dated September 16, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.49-72.) On March 9, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.28-34.) 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. § 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. § 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. § 416.945.

         Plaintiff has the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by her impairments and that she 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 Jenkins determined Plaintiff's claim failed at step five. At step one the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 3, 2012, the application date. (PageID.54.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of: (1) lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease; (2) intermittent explosive disorder; (3) post-traumatic stress disorder; (4) bipolar disorder; (5) lumbar radiculopathy; (6) major depression; (7) anxiety; (8) sacroiliac syndrome; (9) lumbar spondylosis; (10) lumbar radiculitis; and (11) polysubstance abuse. (PageID.54.) 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.54-55.) At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments to perform:

light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except she needs to alternative between sitting and standing up to two times each hour. She can engage in occasional postural positioning, but she should avoid ladders, rope, scaffolds, unprotected heights, and machines with dangerous parts. She can frequently, but not continuously, use her upper extremities for reaching in all directions, including overhead as well as pushing, pulling, and operating hand controls. She is able to sustain attention and concentration for two hours at time. She can follow short, simple (not detailed) instructions and perform routine tasks with no work requiring production rate or demand pace. She should avoid work involving crises, complex decision making, or constant changes in a routine setting. She should have only occasional contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the public.

(PageID.55-56.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was incapable of performing her past relevant work. (PageID.64.) 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 her limitations. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The expert testified that Plaintiff could perform other work as a laundry folder (2, 800 regional jobs and 100, 000 national jobs) and small parts assembler (900 regional positions and 23, 000 national positions). (PageID.93-94.) 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.[2] (PageID.65.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from June 3, 2012, the application date, through September 16, ...

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