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Goodrich v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 27, 2017

LARRY JOHN GOODRICH, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          RAY KENT United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff brings this 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 his 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.)

         Plaintiff was born in 1964. PageID.94. He has a ninth grade education and previous employment as a tile setter. PageID.87, 249. Plaintiff filed for benefits on May 29, 2012, alleging disability beginning July 30, 2011, due to lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, shingles, and depression. PageID.94-95, 225-231. An administrative law judge (ALJ) reviewed Plaintiff's claim de novo and entered a written decision denying benefits on April 25, 2014. PageID.35-54. 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.

         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.

         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 the fifth step of the evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date. PageID.40. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus; (2) degenerative disc disease, lumbar spine; (3) high blood pressure; (4) mood disorder; and (5) cannabis dependence. PageID.40-44. 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.44-45. At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and delineated here: he can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; he can sit 6 hours, and stand and/or walk 6 hours, in an 8-hour workday; he can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, climb ramps or stairs; he cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; he can occasionally push and pull with the lower extremities to include the operation of foot pedals; he cannot work around dangerous machinery or unprotected heights; he is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks, not performed in a fast-paced production environment, involving only simple, work related decisions, and in general, relatively few workplace changes; he is limited to occupations that entail occasional interaction with the general public.

PageID.45. Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. PageID.48. At the fifth step, the ALJ questioned a vocational expert 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 hand packager (150, 000 positions), material handler (25, 000 postions) and equipment cleaner (40, 000 positions). PageID.88-90. 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.49.

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from July 30, 2011, the alleged disability onset date, through April 25, 2014, the date of decision. PageID.49-50.

         DISCUSSION

         1. Plaintiff's Mental Limitations Were Properly Expressed.

         Plaintiff first contends the ALJ erred in evaluating his mental impairments. He specifically argues with the following language used by the ALJ: “he is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks, not performed in a fast-paced production environment, involving only simple, work related decisions, and in general, relatively few workplace changes; he is limited to occupations that entail occasional interaction with the general public.” PageID.45. According to Plaintiff, these “limitations are not expressed in terms of work related mental activities at all.” PageID.471. It is true that agency rulings require that non-exertional limitations “must be expressed in terms of work-related functions, ” including the ability to “understand, carry-out and remember instructions, use judgment in making work-related decisions, respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and supervisors, and deal with changes ...


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