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Tapley v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 22, 2017

AMANDA TAPLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          RAY KENT, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) which denied her claim for supplemental security income (SSI).

         Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of November 10, 1991. PageID.175.[1] She identified her disabling conditions as Asperger's, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and depression. PageID.179. She completed the 12th grade. PageID.180. At the time plaintiff filed this application for SSI on March 8, 2013, she was working part time in a custodial job at a sheltered workshop. PageID.37, 180.

         By way of background, this is plaintiff's second application for benefits. Plaintiff filed the present application for benefits on the same date that she appealed a September 15, 2011 administrative decision denying benefits. This Court addressed that appeal in Tapley v. Commissioner of Social Security, 1:13-cv-262, 2014 WL 1052611 (W.D. Mich.) (“Tapley I”). In Tapley I, the administrative law judge (ALJ) found that plaintiff had the disorders alleged in the present case and that she could perform a range of unskilled light work which included light cleaning (5, 000 jobs), packaging (6, 500 jobs) and machine operator/tender (8, 000 jobs). Tapley I (Opinion) (docket no. 15, PageID.552). In an opinion entered on March 18, 2014, the Magistrate Judge affirmed the Commissioner's decision denying benefits. Id. (Judgment) (docket no. 16).

         In the present case, the ALJ reviewed plaintiff's present claim de novo and entered a written decision denying benefits on June 6, 2014. PageID.37-47. At the administrative hearing, plaintiff's counsel advised the ALJ that Tapley I was still pending and that they were in the process of deciding whether to appeal. PageID.37.[2] Notably, the ALJ acknowledged that he was not bound by the ALJ's findings in Tapley I, stating that “[b]ecause the claimant's previous claim is currently pending before the District Court, the Drummond [Drummond v. Commissioner of Social Security, 126 F.3d 837 (6th Cir.1997)] and Dennard [Dennard v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 907 F.2d 598 (6th Cir.1990)] decisions were not applied”. PageID.45. In this regard, the ALJ was referring to SSA Acquiesence Rulings which arose from the Drummond and Dennard decisions which state in pertinent part:

When adjudicating a subsequent disability claim with an unadjudicated period arising under the same title of the Act as the prior claim, adjudicators must adopt such a finding from the final decision by an ALJ or the Appeals Council on the prior claim in determining whether the claimant is disabled with respect to the unadjudicated period unless there is new and material evidence relating to such a finding or there has been a change in the law, regulations or rulings affecting the finding or the method for arriving at the finding.

See Acquiesence Rulings 98-3(6) and 98-4(6). See generally, Gay v. Commissioner of Social Security, 520 Fed.Appx. 354, 356 (6th Cir. 2013) (Drummond and Dennard “stand for the principle that when confronted with a second application for benefits, an ALJ is bound by favorable subsidiary findings from the previous determination, unless there is new and material evidence to the contrary”). In reviewing the present claim, the ALJ ultimately concluded that “the overall evidence indicated no new evidence indicating an increase or decrease in the claimant's functioning when compared to the September 15, 2011 findings.” PageID.45. The ALJ's decision, which was later approved by the Appeals Council, has become the final decision of the Commissioner and is now before the Court for review.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         This Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is typically focused on determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); McKnight v. Sullivan, 927 F.2d 241 (6th Cir. 1990). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Cutlip v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). A determination of substantiality of the evidence must be based upon the record taken as a whole. Young v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 925 F.2d 146 (6th Cir. 1990).

         The scope of this review is limited to an examination of the record only. This Court does not review the evidence de novo, make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Brainard v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 1989). The fact that the record also contains evidence which would have supported a different conclusion does not undermine the Commissioner's decision so long as there is substantial support for that decision in the record. Willbanks v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 847 F.2d 301, 303 (6th Cir. 1988). Even if the reviewing court would resolve the dispute differently, the Commissioner's decision must stand if it is supported by substantial evidence. Young, 925 F.2d at 147.

         A claimant must prove that he suffers from a disability in order to be entitled to benefits. A disability is established by showing that the claimant cannot engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.905; Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990). In applying the above standard, the Commissioner has developed a five-step analysis:

The Social Security Act requires the Secretary to follow a “five-step sequential process” for claims of disability. First, plaintiff must demonstrate that she is not currently engaged in “substantial gainful activity” at the time she seeks disability benefits. Second, plaintiff must show that she suffers from a “severe impairment” in order to warrant a finding of disability. A “severe impairment” is one which “significantly limits . . . physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Third, if plaintiff is not performing substantial gainful activity, has a severe impairment that is expected to last for at least twelve months, and the impairment meets a listed impairment, plaintiff is presumed to be disabled regardless of age, education or work experience. Fourth, if the plaintiff's impairment does not prevent her from doing her past relevant work, plaintiff is not disabled. For the fifth and final step, even if the plaintiff's impairment does prevent her from doing her past relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, plaintiff is not disabled.

Heston v. Commissioner of Social Security, 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted).

         The claimant bears the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by her impairments and the fact that she is precluded from performing her past relevant work through step four. Jones v. Commissioner of Social Security, 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). However, at step five of the inquiry, “the burden shifts to the Commissioner 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. If it is determined that a claimant is or is not disabled at any point in the evaluation process, further review is not necessary. Mullis v. Bowen, 861 F.2d 991, 993 (6th Cir. 1988).

         “The federal court's standard of review for SSI cases mirrors the standard applied in social security disability cases.” D'Angelo v. Commissioner of Social Security, 475 F.Supp.2d 716, 719 (W.D. Mich. 2007). “The proper inquiry in an application for SSI benefits is whether the plaintiff was disabled on or after her ...


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