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Defrain v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 22, 2017

JENNIFER SUE DEFRAIN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, AND DISMISSING ACTION

          Denise Page Hood Chief, U.S. District Court Judge

         I. BACKGROUND/FACTS

         A. Procedural History

         On January 2, 2014, Plaintiff Jennifer Sue Defrain (“Defrain”) brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking reversal of the final decision of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Defrain's applications for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. (Doc # 27; Doc # 36)

         Defrain filed an application for DIB and SSI in March 2011 alleging disability beginning on February 12, 2011. (Administrative Transcript “Tr.” 185- 98) Her claims were denied, and she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 121-39, 142-43) On August 14, 2012, the ALJ held a hearing at which Defrain and a Vocation Expert (“VE”) testified. (Tr. 31-71) The ALJ issued a decision on August 24, 2012 finding that Defrain was not disabled. (Tr. 8-29) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on October 28, 2013, when the Appeals Council denied Defrain's request for review. (Tr. 1-3)

         B. ALJ's Decision

         A “disability” is the “inability to engage in any 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Commissioner determines whether a claimant is disabled by analyzing five sequential steps. First, if the claimant is “doing substantial gainful activity, ” he or she will be found not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). Second, if the claimant has not had a severe impairment[1] or a combination of such impairments for a continuous period of at least 12 months, he or she will be found not disabled. Id. Third, if the claimant's severe impairments meet or equal the criteria of an impairment set forth in the Commissioner's Listing of Impairments, he or she will be found disabled. Id. If the fourth step is reached, the Commissioner considers its assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), and will find the claimant is not disabled if he or she can still do relevant work. Id. At the final and fifth step, the Commissioner reviews the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience, and determines whether the claimant could adjust to other work. Id. The claimant bears the burden of proof throughout the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner if the fifth step is reached. Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994). The same standards apply to both claims for DIB and applications for SSI. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         Applying this framework, the ALJ concluded that Defrain was not disabled. At the first step, he found that Defrain had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (Tr. 13) At the second step, he found that Defrain had severe impairments of “fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, sleep apnea, degenerative disc disease, valvular heart disease, peripheral vascular disease, obesity, temporomandibular joint dysfunction, and migraine headaches.” (Tr. 14) At the third step, the ALJ concluded that none of Defrain's impairments, either alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of the listed impairments. (Tr. 16)

         At the fourth step, the ALJ found that Defrain had the RFC to perform sedentary work with several exertional and non-exertional limitations:

she would require the ability to alternate between sitting and standing at will, provided she is not off task more than 10 percent of the work period. She must avoid repetitive rotation, extension, and flexion of her neck. The claimant can occasionally perform overhead reaching activities with her bilateral upper extremities. She can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch. She can have no exposure to vibration and must work in a quiet work environment. She can occasionally use foot controls with her bilateral lower extremities. The claimant can have no exposure to unprotected heights and exposure to moving machinery. Giving the claimant the benefit of the doubt, she is limited to simple tasks. She would be unable to perform at a production rate pace, such as assembly line work, but she could perform goal-oriented work. The claimant can have occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the public. She is limited to one and two-step tasks. The claimant is limited to low stress jobs, defined as having only occasional decision making, occasional changes in work setting, and the occasional use of judgment.

(Tr. 17) Due to these limitations, the ALJ found that Defrain could not perform any past relevant work as a nurse aid, cashier, or assistant store manager due to the skill levels and exertional demands of those positions. (Tr. 23)

         After considering Defrain's age (30 years old at the alleged onset date), education (eighth grade education and some vocational training), work experience, RFC, and testimony from the VE, the ALJ found at the fifth step that Defrain could perform a significant number of other jobs in the regional and national economy, including inspector (1, 000 jobs in Michigan), general office clerk (3, 000 jobs in Michigan), and account clerk (1, 000 jobs in Michigan). (Tr. 23-24) The ALJ concluded that Defrain was not disabled. (Tr. 24)

         Defrain seeks reversal of the final decision of the Commissioner on two grounds arguing that: (1) the ALJ erred at the fourth step by not giving controlling weight to the opinion of her treating physician in determining her RFC, and by not providing good reasons for failing to do so; and (2) the ALJ erred at the fifth step by failing to resolve conflicts between the VE's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”), and by not specifying the frequency of the sit-stand option.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited in scope to determining whether the Commissioner employed the proper legal criteria in reaching his conclusion. Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). The credibility findings of an ALJ must not be discarded lightly and should be accorded great deference. Hardaway v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 823 F.2d 922, 928 (6th Cir. 1987). A district court's review of an ALJ's decision is not a de novo review. The district court may not resolve conflicts in the evidence nor decide questions of credibility. Garner, 745 F.2d at 387. The decision of the Commissioner must be upheld if supported by substantial evidence, even if the record might support a contrary decision or if the district court arrives at a different conclusion. Smith v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 893 F.2d 106, 108 (6th Cir. 1984); Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla of ...


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