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Hodges v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 24, 2017

LYLE E. HODGES, 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 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. 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 Court's jurisdiction is confined to a review of the Commissioner's decision and of the record made in the administrative hearing process. See Willbanks v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 847 F.2d 301, 303 (6th Cir. 1988). 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 forty-six years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.48, 75.) He completed high school and was previously employed as a spray paint technician, lawn care worker, hog inseminator, and as a lead injection mold machine operator. (PageID.77, 106.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on November 19, 2012, alleging disability beginning October 4, 2011, due to congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation, a mass in his kidney, kidney stones, blood in his urine, sleep apnea requiring oxygen assistance, severe fallen arches in both of his feet, stage 2 diabetes, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, and high blood pressure. (PageID.114, 175-176.) Plaintiff's application was denied on June 13, 2013, after which time he requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (PageID.126-129, 134-136.) On May 28, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with his counsel before ALJ Donna Grit for an administrative hearing at which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.66-111.) In a written decision dated August 8, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.48-65.) On September 8, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.27-32.) 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).[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.

         The burden of establishing the right to benefits rests squarely on Plaintiff's shoulders, and he can satisfy his burden by demonstrating that his impairments are so severe that he is unable to perform his previous work and cannot, considering his 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 his 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 Plaintiff's claim failed at step five. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date of October 4, 2011. (PageID.53.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) congestive heart failure; (2) hypertension; (3) chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); (4) obesity; (5) obstructive sleep apnea; (6) spondylosis of the cervical and lumbar spine; and (7) bilateral pes planus with degenerative changes and capsulitis. (PageID.53.) 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.55.) At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform a limited range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a): he cannot lift and/or carry more than ten pounds frequently; he cannot stand and/or walk for more than a total of two hours in an eight-hour workday; and he cannot sit for more than a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday. He also cannot crawl or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; he cannot work at unprotected heights or around dangerous moving machinery; he cannot balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or climb stairs/ramps more than occasionally; and he cannot work with exposure to dust, fumes, odors, gases, humidity, poor ventilation, extreme heat or cold more than occasionally.

(PageID.55.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. (PageID.60.) 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 an order clerk (3, 100 regional and 35, 000 national positions), security monitor (1, 400 regional and 18, 000 national positions), and visual inspector (2, 800 regional and 24, 000 national positions). (PageID.106-108.) 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.61.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from October 4, 2011, the alleged disability onset date, through August 8, 2014, the date of decision. (PageID.61.)

         DISCUSSION

         1. The ALJ's Step Two Determination.

         Plaintiff first argues that he is entitled to relief because the ALJ failed to find that his diabetes and kidney conditions were not severe impairments. (PageID.633-634, 659-661.) At step two of the sequential disability analysis, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The Sixth Circuit has held that where the ALJ finds the presence of a severe impairment at step two and proceeds to continue through the remaining steps of the analysis, the alleged failure to identify as severe some other impairment constitutes harmless error so long as the ALJ considered the entire medical record in rendering her decision. See Maziarz v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 837 F.2d 240, 244 (6th Cir. 1987); Kirkland v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F. App'x ...


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