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Rowe v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 16, 2017

MARY ROWE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          RAY KENT United States Magistrate Judge.

         This is an action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's claim for benefits under the Social Security Act. The parties have agreed to proceed in this Court for all further proceedings, including an order of final judgment. (ECF No. 9.)

         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 fifty years old as of her amended alleged onset date. (PageID.103, 182.) She completed high school and was previously employed as an assembler and laborer. (PageID.70-71.) Plaintiff applied for widow's insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act on June 20, 2012, alleging disability beginning October 6, 2008, due to fibromyalgia, chronic osteoarthritis pain, sleep apnea, arthritis throughout her body, knees needing replacement, post traumatic stress nightmares, depression, and carpal tunnel syndrome. (PageID.103-104, 167-173.) Plaintiff's application was denied on March 25, 2013, after which time she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (PageID.115-120.) On August 26, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the act, again alleging disability beginning October 6, 2008, due to the above listed maladies. (PageID.185-190.) On March 12, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ James Prothro for an administrative hearing on both applications. At the hearing, testimony was heard from Plaintiff as well as a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.60-96.) Plaintiff also amended her alleged onset date to October 18, 2009. (PageID.182.) In a partially favorable written decision, dated May 9, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to August 26, 2013, but became disabled on that date and continued to be disabled through the date of the decision. (PageID.37-59.) On October 9, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.25-29.) 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(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), 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.

         The burden of establishing the right to benefits rests squarely on Plaintiff's shoulders, and she can satisfy her burden by demonstrating that her impairments are so severe that she is unable to perform her previous work and cannot, considering her age, education, and work experience, perform any other substantial gainful employment existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); Cohen. 964 F.2d at 528. While the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five, Plaintiff bears the burden of proof through step four of the procedure, the point at which her residual functional capacity (RFC) is determined. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997) (noting that the ALJ determines RFC at step four, at which point the claimant bears the burden of proof).

         The ALJ determined that, prior to August 26, 2013, Plaintiff's claim failed at step five. The ALJ first determined that Plaintiff met the non-disability requirements for disabled widow's benefits through August 29, 2010, the date on which Plaintiff remarried, and which is termed the “controlling date.” (PageID.44-45.) Then, beginning with the evaluation at step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability 4. If an individual is capable of performing work he or she has done in the past, a finding of “not disabled” must be made (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)); 5. If an individual's impairment is so severe as to preclude the performance of past work, other factors including age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity must be considered to determine if other work can be performed. (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f)). onset date.[2] (PageID.53.) At step two, the ALJ found that since the alleged disability onset date through August 29, 2010, Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) obesity; (2) bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; (3) epicondylitis; and (4) possible knee arthritis. (PageID.45.) The ALJ further determined, at step two, that beginning August 26, 2013, Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of: (1) right ankle fracture status post open reduction and internal fixation; (2) bilateral knee osteoarthritis; (3) right hip trochanteric bursitis; (4) fibromyalgia; and (5) obesity status post bariatric surgery. (PageID.45.) At step three, the ALJ found that at all relevant times, 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.47.) At step four, the ALJ first determined that prior to August 26, 2013, Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with the following limitations: occasional climbing ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes and scaffolds; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling; frequent bilateral fingering; and she should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, humidity, vibration, and hazards.

         (PageID.47.) Next, the ALJ determined that beginning August 26, 2013, ...


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