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Kent v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 17, 2017

PHILIP KENT, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          GORDON J. QUIST 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) 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.

         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 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.

         PROCEDURAL POSTURE

         Plaintiff was forty-one years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.35, 62.) He previously obtained a high school education and had been employed as a welder/grinder. (PageID.80.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on July 1, 2013, alleging that he had been disabled since June 11, 2008, due to a low back injury / herniated lumbar disc with radiculopathy, headaches, and TMJ. (PageID.91, 154-155.) This application was denied on October 1, 2013, after which time Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.104-116.) Shortly before the hearing, Plaintiff's counsel authored a letter amending the onset date to October 31, 2012. (PageID.164.) On September 3, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with his counsel before ALJ Nicholas Ohanesian for an administrative hearing, at which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.54-89.) On November 14, 2014, the ALJ issued his written decision, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.35-52.) On February 24, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.28-32.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Plaintiff's insured status expired on December 31, 2013. (PageID.91.) Accordingly, to be eligible for DIB under Title II of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish that he became disabled prior to the expiration of his insured status. See 42 U.S.C. § 423; Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1182 (6th Cir. 1990).

         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).[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.

         The ALJ determined Plaintiff's claim failed at step five. At step one the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period between his alleged disability onset date and his date last insured.[2] (PageID.40.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of: (1) degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with stenosis and radiculopathy; (2) migraine headaches; and (3) temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ). (PageID.40-41.) 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.41.) At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments to perform:

sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a). The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. He can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. He is limited to frequent exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, humidity, hazards, lighting and noise above that of a normal office environment. Further, he must be provided the opportunity to change positions from standing to sitting or vice versa for one to two minutes every fifteen minutes.

         (PageID.42.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (PageID.46.) 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 work in the following representative jobs: packager sorter (3, 000 positions), cashier (4, 000 positions), and assembler (3, 500 positions). (PageID.80-84.) Based on this record, the ...


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