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DeJaegher v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 16, 2017

REBECCA LYNN DEJAEGHER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          RAY KENT United States Magistrate 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 Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and 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 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 thirty-one years of age on the date of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision. (PageID.51, 110, 120.) She completed her formal education after the eleventh grade and was previously employed as a nurse's assistant. (PageID.103, 213.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on February 25, 2013, alleging that she had been disabled since November 1, 2011, due to severe lower back problems and mild GAD (generalized anxiety disorder.) (PageID.110, 120, 182-194.) Plaintiff's applications were denied on May 9, 2013, and Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.133-141.) On April 10, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Richard Gartner for an administrative hearing at which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.69-108.) In a written decision dated June 6, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.51-68.) Thereafter, on September 4, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision. (PageID.25-28.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         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), 416.920[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), 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. §§ 404.1545. 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 her 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 Gartner determined Plaintiff's claim failed at step five. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 1, 2011, the alleged disability onset date. (PageID.56.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from a severe impairment of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. (PageID.56.) 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.57.) 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) and 416.967(a) except: limited to occasional postural maneuvers such as balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and climbing ramps and stairs; occasional overhead work; must avoid climbing ladders, ropes or scaffold; must be afforded the option to sit and stand during the workday for five to ten minutes every hour or so or more with the permission of the employer; limited to occasional pushing and pulling with the lower left and right extremities to include the operation of foot pedals; and limited to occupations, which do not require exposure to dangerous machinery and unprotected heights.

(PageID.58.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.61.) 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 an accounting clerk (65, 000 jobs), information clerk (80, 000 jobs), and office clerk (90, 000 jobs). (PageID.103-105.) 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. (PageID.62.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from November 1, 2011, the alleged onset date, through June 6, 2014, the date of decision. (PageID.62-63.)

         DISCUSSION

         1. ...


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