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VanRee v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 27, 2017

BRENDA VANREE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          ELLEN S. CARMODY 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. 8.)

         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 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 fifty-three years of age as of her alleged disability onset date and fifty-five years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.50, 117.) She obtained a high school education and was previously employed as a hotel desk clerk, plastic injection mold operator, school bus driver, and as a general maintenance worker. (PageID.78, 109.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on June 4, 2013, alleging disability beginning April 30, 2013, due to coronary artery and heart disease, as well as arthritis in her elbow with a missing radial head bone. (PageID.117, 174-177.) Plaintiff's application was denied on August 29, 2013, after which time she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (PageID.130-133.) On July 31, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ William Reamon for an administrative hearing at which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.74-115.) In a written decision, dated October 30, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.50-73.) On March 21, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.22-27.) 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 she can satisfy her burden by demonstrating that her impairments are so severe that she is unable to perform her previous work and cannot, considering her 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 her 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 four. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date of April 30, 2013. (PageID.55.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of right upper extremity posttraumatic osteoarthritis and cervical disc disease with radiculopathy. (PageID.55-56.) 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.56-60.) At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, and sit about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks. The claimant is limited to only occasionally pushing and/or pulling with the right (dominant) upper extremity, and is limited to only occasional handling and fingering with the right hand. There are no left-sided limitations. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and has no limitation balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling. Additionally, the claimant would need to avoid environmental factors such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery.

(PageID.60.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a hotel desk clerk both as she performed it and as it was generally performed within the national economy. The ALJ concluded that this work did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by Plaintiff's RFC. In doing so, the ALJ relied in part on the testimony of the VE at the administrative hearing.[2] (PageID.111-112.)

         Although not required to do so, the ALJ included an alternative step five finding that there were still other jobs existing in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. The ALJ referenced the VE's testimony on the matter. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The expert testified that Plaintiff could perform other work as an information clerk (3, 100 regional and 37, 000 national positions), unskilled sales attendant (3, 500 ...


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