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Springett v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 20, 2017



          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 Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of 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. 8.)


         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.


         Plaintiff was fifty years of age as of the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.28, 115.) He obtained a high school education and was previously employed as a landscape laborer. (PageID.73, 105.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on October 28, 2012, alleging that he had been disabled since September 13, 2012, due to injuries to his left shoulder and ankle, limited mobility in his left elbow, a seizure disorder, and constant shaking of his hands. (PageID.115-116, 182-187.) Plaintiff's application was denied on June 12, 2013, after which time he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (PageID.132-143.) On May 9, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with his counsel before ALJ Michael S. Condon for an administrative hearing at which time Plaintiff, his spouse, and a vocational expert (VE), all testified. (PageID.51-113.) In a written decision dated June 20, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.28-49.) On July 31, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.22-26.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         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.

         ALJ Condon determined Plaintiff's claim failed at step five. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 13, 2012, the alleged onset date. (PageID.33.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of: (1) seizure disorder; (2) cognitive disorder; (3) depression with anxiety; (4) left shoulder osteoarthritis status-post total left shoulder replacement surgery; (5) status-post multiple ankle surgeries; and (6) status-post left elbow surgery. (PageID.33.) 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.34-36.) At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments to perform:

less than a full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). The claimant: can lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, but is limited to carrying only up to 5 pounds with the left upper extremity; in an 8-hour workday, the claimant can sit for 1 hour at a time for up to 6 hours total and can stand/ walk for 30 minutes each at a time for up to 6 hours total; must avoid exposure to hazards, including unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery and is unable to operate motorized vehicles; is limited to only occasional exposure to temperature extremes; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; can occasionally balance, stoop and crouch, but can never kneel or crawl; cannot reach above chest level with the left upper extremity; and is limited to doing only simple, routine, repetitive tasks involving simple work-related decisions.

(PageID.36.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. (PageID.43.) 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 expert testified that Plaintiff could perform other work as a light assembler (14, 000 regional jobs), packager (6, 300 regional jobs), and machine tender (7, 800 regional jobs). (PageID.106-107.) 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.44.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from September 13, 2012, the alleged disability onset date, through June 20, 2014, the date of decision. (PageID.44-45.)


         1.The ALJ's Step Three Analysis.

         Plaintiff first argues the ALJ's step three determination is unsupported by substantial evidence. He specifically contends the ALJ erred by failing to consult a medical expert as to whether his impairments met or equaled a listing, and also erred by failing to more fully discuss whether Plaintiff's severe impairment of a seizure disorder satisfied a listed impairment.[2] (PageID.590-594.) The Court disagrees.

         The Listing of Impairments, detailed in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, identifies various impairments which, if present to the severity detailed therein, result in a finding that the claimant is disabled. At step three of the sequential disability analysis, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. In order to be considered disabled under the Listing of Impairments, “a claimant must establish that his condition either is permanent, is expected to result in death, or is expected to last at least 12 months, as well as show that his condition meets or equals one of the listed impairments.” Id. An impairment satisfies the listing only when it manifests the specific findings described in the medical criteria for that particular impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(d). A claimant does not satisfy a particular listing unless all of the requirements of the listing are present. See Hale v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 816 F.2d 1078, 1083 (6th Cir. 1987). “It is insufficient that a claimant comes close to meeting the requirements of a listed impairment.” Elam ex rel. Golay v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 348 F.3d 124, 125 (6th Cir. 2003). “When a claimant alleges that he meets or equals a listed impairment, he must present specific medical findings that satisfy the various tests listed in the description of the applicable impairment or present medical evidence which describes how the impairment has such equivalency.” Thacker v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 93 F. App'x 725, 728 (6th Cir. 2004). If a claimant successfully carries this burden, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled without considering the claimant's age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

         At issue here are two listed impairments addressing both convulsive and nonconvulsive epilepsy. The first, Listing ...

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