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Najjar v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 3, 2017




         This matter is presently before the Court on cross motions for summary judgment [docket entries 14 and 18]. Pursuant to E.D. Mich. LR 7.1(f)(2), the Court shall decide these motions without a hearing. For the reasons stated below, the Court shall grant plaintiff's motion, deny defendant's motion, and remand the case for further proceedings.

         Plaintiff has brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to challenge defendant's final decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing in June 2015 (Tr. 24-54) and issued a decision denying benefits in July 2015 (Tr. 10-20). This became defendant's final decision in August 2016 when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-3).

         Under § 405(g), the issue before the Court is whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. As the Sixth Circuit has explained, the Court

must affirm the Commissioner's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence and the Commissioner employed the proper legal standard. White, 572 F.3d at 281 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)); Elam ex rel. Golay v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 348 F.3d 124, 125 (6th Cir. 2003); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Kyle, 609 F.3d at 854 (quoting Lindsley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 560 F.3d 601, 604 (6th Cir. 2009)). Where the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be upheld even if the record might support a contrary conclusion. Smith v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 893 F.2d 106, 108 (6th Cir. 1989). However, a substantiality of evidence evaluation does not permit a selective reading of the record. “Substantiality of the evidence must be based upon the record taken as a whole. Substantial evidence is not simply some evidence, or even a great deal of evidence. Rather, the substantiality of evidence must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 388 (6th Cir. 1984) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

Brooks v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 531 F. App'x 636, 640-41 (6th Cir. 2013).

         At the time of her August 2014 hearing, plaintiff was 57 years old (Tr. 27). She has a fourth grade education and work experience as a hotel housekeeper, fast-food cook, and spot welder (Tr. 28-31). Plaintiff claims she has been disabled since April 2013 (Tr. 187) due to depression and problems with her wrist, back, and shoulders (Tr. 32, 191) and pain in her right arm and shoulder, legs, and knees (Tr. 31, 36). Plaintiff also testified she has insomnia, crying spells, and frequent headaches (Tr. 39-40, 45-46). She indicated she wears a wrist splint constantly and uses a cane to walk (Tr. 32, 37). Plaintiff stated she can walk less than one block, stand for ten minutes, sit for ten to fifteen minutes, and lift at most five pounds (Tr. 41).

         The ALJ found that plaintiff's severe impairments are “status post right shoulder surgery, right wrist tendonitis, degenerative joint disorder of the right knee, headaches, and obesity” (Tr. 15). The ALJ found that plaintiff's brain cyst and depression are non-severe impairments (Tr. 16). The ALJ found that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a limited range of light work[1] and that her past work as a hotel housekeeper is within this RFC (Tr. 17-20). The ALJ therefore concluded that plaintiff is not disabled (Tr. 20).

         Having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefs, the Court concludes that the ALJ's decision in this matter is not supported by substantial evidence because her RFC evaluation of plaintiff is flawed. Substantial evidence does not support the finding that plaintiff has the RFC to perform her past work as a hotel housekeeper.

         First, the ALJ erred in her evaluation of plaintiff's headaches. While the ALJ found that plaintiff's headaches are among her severe impairments (Tr. 15), she made no findings as to the headaches' severity, frequency, or duration. And while the ALJ asserted that “the claimant's alleged chronic headaches . . . have been taken into account in the adopted residual functional capacity” (Tr. 16 n.1), she does not explain how she did so. Plaintiff testified that she experiences headaches three to four times per week and that they last two hours (Tr. 45).[2] She also stated that when the headaches occur, she must “sleep it off until the light because I can't be around light” and that she feels “like my eyes are coming out of my head” (Tr. 45-46). The ALJ did not reject this testimony, which leaves it unrebutted. The vocational expert (“VE”) testified that if plaintiff is “off task” more than 20 percent of the workday, she would be unemployable (Tr. 52). On remand, the ALJ must make specific findings as to the severity, frequency, and duration of plaintiff's headaches, and, as appropriate, revise her RFC evaluation of plaintiff and her hypothetical question(s) to the VE accordingly.

         The ALJ also erred by failing to properly evaluate plaintiff's obesity. Under defendant's regulations, an adult with a body mass index (“BMI”) of 30 or above is deemed to be obese. See SSR 02-1p. Plaintiff's BMI is at least 34 (Tr. 17). While obesity is no longer a “listed impairment, ” this Social Security ruling does require the ALJ to consider it at all steps of the sequential process while evaluating applicants for disability insurance benefits. See id., Policy Interpretation ¶ 3. Further,

[o]besity is a medically determinable impairment that is often associated with disturbance of the musculoskeletal system, and disturbance of this system can be a major cause of disability in individuals with obesity. The combined effects of obesity with musculoskeletal impairments can be greater than the effects of each of the impairments considered separately. Therefore, when determining whether an individual with obesity has a listing-level impairment or combination of impairments, and when assessing a claim at other steps of the sequential evaluation process, including when assessing an individual's residual functional capacity, adjudicators must consider any additional and cumulative effects of obesity.

20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 1.00Q (emphasis added).

         In the present case, the ALJ found that plaintiff's obesity[3] is among her severe impairments (Tr. 15). While the ALJ claimed to have “considered the effects of the claimant's obesity in reducing the claimant's residual functional capacity as described below pursuant to SSR 02-01p” (Tr. 17), plaintiff's obesity is mentioned nowhere else in the ALJ's decision. Nor did the ALJ ask plaintiff if or how her weight affects her other symptoms or her ability to work. In her written decision, the ALJ entirely neglected to analyze the effect, if any, of plaintiff's obesity on her “degenerative joint disorder of the right knee” (clearly, a “musculoskeletal impairment” under SSR 02-1p), which the ALJ found to be among plaintiff's severe impairments (Tr. 15), or on her “degenerative joint disorder of the right ankle and foot, ” which she found, by itself, to be a non-severe impairment (Tr. 16). While a person of normal weight with such disorders might be able to do the walking and standing required by light-level work, an obese person may well not be able to do so because of the extra stress being placed on the affected joints. On remand, the ALJ must determine how obese plaintiff was during the relevant time period, and consider the effects, if any, of her obesity on her other ...

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