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Lubben v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 24, 2017

MICHELLE LUBBEN, 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 disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI).

         Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of April 1, 2013. PageID.238. She identified her disabling conditions as bipolar disorder and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PageID.242. Plaintiff completed a GED and had past employment as a factory worker (production line welder and injection molding machine tender), home health care aide, and newspaper delivery person. PageID.89-90, 243. An administrative law judge (ALJ) reviewed plaintiff's claim de novo and entered a written decision denying benefits on August 8, 2014. PageID.43-53. This 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. §§ 404.1505 and 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 application date.” Casey v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 987 F.2d 1230, 1233 (6th Cir. 1993).

         II. ALJ'S DECISION

         Plaintiff has alleged a disability onset date of April 1, 2013. As an initial matter, the ALJ found that an earlier decision denying plaintiff's application for benefits on March 28, 2012 was final and binding through the date of that decision. PageID.43. Having made this determination, the ALJ addressed the extent to which he adopted the previous determination of plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC):

In determining the claimant's residual functional capacity, the undersigned considered Acquiescence Ruling 98-4(6), Drummond v. Commissioner of Social Security, which states that a prior hearing decision's findings of a claimant's residual functional capacity must be adopted by subsequent adjudicators of claims filed under the same title of the Social Security Act in determining whether the claimant is disabled with respect to an unadjudicated period unless there is new and material evidence relating to such a finding ...

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