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Furister v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 8, 2017




         A. Introduction and Procedural History

         This is an action for judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. (Doc. 4; Tr. 1-3). The matter is currently before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 19, 22). The case was reassigned from District Judge Gerald Rosen to District Judge Mark Goldsmith on December 27, 2016, pursuant to the retirement of Judge Rosen. On April 20, 2017, Judge Goldsmith ordered the parties to “discuss whether they are willing to consent, under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to conducting all further proceedings in this case before the assigned Magistrate Judge.” (Doc. 24). If the parties did not so consent, they were required to file “a joint notice, within two weeks of the date of [that] order, advising the Court that the parties do not consent.” (Id.). If they did consent, the Commissioner was instructed to “file a fully executed Notice, Consent and Reference of a Civil Action to a Magistrate Judge form, ” and was to perform this action “within two weeks of the date of this order.” (Id.). The matter was not stayed pending the parties' decision on whether to consent. On January 31, 2017, the undersigned magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation to grant Furister's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 25). Later that day, the Commissioner filed a notice of consent to magistrate judge jurisdiction bearing signatures from both parties. (Doc. 26). On February 7, 2017, District Judge Goldsmith filed an order instructing that “[i]n light of the parties' consent, the Court orders that the matter is deemed to be before the Magistrate Judge for entry of final judgment.” (Doc. 27). The consent form was signed by District Judge Goldsmith on February 7, 2017. (Doc. 28). With consent to conduct all proceedings in this matter, including the entry of final judgment, I therefore now convert my earlier report and recommendation into an opinion an order.

         Plaintiff Tracey Furister was forty-one years old as of February 17, 2015, the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 29, 189). Her application for benefits was initially denied on April 15, 2013. (Tr. 63). Furister requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which took place before ALJ Andrew Sloss on September 26, 2014. (Tr. 40-52). Furister, represented by attorney Aaron Lemmens, testified, as did vocational expert (“VE”) Edwards. (Id.). A second hearing was held on January 9, 2015, to permit Furister to question the VE regarding supplemental interrogatories sent to that expert. (Tr. 35-39). At the second hearing, Furister was represented by attorney Lunitz, and VE Everetts testified. (Id.). On February 17, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision in which he found Furister not disabled. (Tr. 18-29). On December 9, 2015, the Appeals Council denied review. (Tr. 1-3). Furister filed for judicial review of that final decision on February 8, 2016. (Doc. 1).

         B. Standard of Review

         The district court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The district court's review is restricted solely to determining whether the “Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.” Sullivan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 595 F. App'x 502, 506 (6th Cir. 2014) (internal citations omitted). Substantial evidence is “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 v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007) (internal quotations omitted).

         The Court must examine the administrative record as a whole, and may consider any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the ALJ. See Walker v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 884 F.2d 241, 245 (6th Cir. 1989). The Court will not “try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor decide questions of credibility.” Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, “it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion.” Id. at 286 (internal citations omitted).

         C. Framework for Disability Determinations

         Under the Act, “DIB and SSI are available only for those who have a ‘disability.'” Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). “Disability” means the inability

to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than [twelve] months.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (DIB); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a) (SSI). The Commissioner's regulations provide that disability is to be determined through the application of a five-step sequential analysis:

Step One: If the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Two: If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments that “significantly limits . . . physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Three: If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, has a severe impairment that is expected to last for at least twelve months, and the severe impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the regulations, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled regardless of age, education or work experience.
Step Four: If the claimant is able to perform his or her past relevant work, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Five: Even if the claimant is unable to perform his or her past relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, in view of his or her age, education, and work experience, benefits are denied.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. See also Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001). “Through step four, the claimant bears the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by [his or] her impairments and the fact that she is precluded from performing [his or] her past relevant work.” Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). The burden transfers to the Commissioner if the analysis reaches the fifth step without a finding that the claimant is not disabled. Combs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 459 F.3d 640, 643 (6th Cir. 2006). At the fifth step, the Commissioner is required to show that “other jobs in significant numbers exist in the national economy that [the claimant] could perform given [his or] her RFC [residual functional capacity] and considering relevant vocational factors.” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), (g)).

         Under the authority of the Social Security Act, the SSA has promulgated regulations that provide for the payment of disabled child's insurance benefits if the claimant is at least 18 years old and has a disability that began before age 22 (20 C.F.R. 404.350(a) (5) (2013). A claimant must establish a medically determinable physical or mental impairment (expected to last at least twelve months or result in death) that rendered her unable to engage in substantial gainful activity. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The regulations provide a five-step sequential evaluation for evaluating disability claims. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         D. ALJ Findings

         Following the five-step sequential analysis, the ALJ found Furister not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 29). The ALJ found at Step One that Furister had not engaged in substantial gainful activity following the alleged onset date, January 15, 2013. (Tr. 20). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Furister had the following severe impairments: “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and degenerative disc disease.” (Tr. 20-22). At Step Three, the ALJ found that Furister's combination of impairments did not meet or equal one of the listed impairments. (Tr. 22). The ALJ then found that Furister had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, except with the following additional limitations:

[She] can frequently climb ramps or stairs and balance. However, the claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to vibration, respiratory irritants and hazards.

(Tr. 22-27). At Step Four, the ALJ found that Furister could not return to any past relevant work. (Tr. 28). At Step Five, the ALJ concluded that Furister retained the ability to perform work which exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 28-29).

         E. Administrative Record

         1. Medical Evidence

         The Court has thoroughly reviewed Furister's medical record. In lieu of summarizing her medical history here, the Court will make references and provide citations to the record as necessary in its discussion of the parties' arguments.

         2. Application Reports and Administrative Hearing

         a. Furister's Function Report

         Furister completed a function report on March 5, 2013. (Tr. 233-40). Furister writes in difficult to decipher cursive script, thus the Court will do its best to determine her meaning. Furister wrote that she was disabled by pain, COPD, heart disease, and numbness in the legs. (Tr. 233). She took care of her thirteen year old son and had pets, but received assistance from her roommate. (Tr. 234). Her sleep was interrupted by pain. (Id.). She had some difficult bathing, caring for her hair, and shaving. (Id.). She did not require reminders to perform personal care or take medicine. (Tr. 235). She prepared “quick & easy” meals daily. (Id.). She did not perform yard work or housework. (Id.). She could drive a car, shopped in stores monthly, and could handle money. (Tr. 236). Her hobbies included sewing on a monthly basis. (Tr. 237). She spent time with others occasionally. (Id.). She wrote of problems performing all postural and exertional activities, but did not report mental issues, including remembering, concentrating, understanding, or getting along with others. (Tr. 238). She could follow instructions and get along with others in an “ok” fashion. (Tr. 239). As to assistive devices, she wrote that she used “oxygen” “all the time, ” but did not note the use of any walking aid. (Id.). Finally, she drafted a long list of medicines, but did not list any side effects of these medications. (Tr. 239-40).

         b. Furister's Testimony at the First ...

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