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LeBleu v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 29, 2017

ROBIN QUEN LeBLEU, 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 his claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI).

         Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of April 15, 2012. PageID.247. He identified his disabling conditions as bipolar disorder, anxiety and related problems. PageID.251. Plaintiff completed the 8th grade and had past employment as a painter and decorator. PageID.252. An administrative law judge (ALJ) reviewed plaintiff's claim de novo and entered a written decision denying benefits on October 16, 2014. PageID.63-75. 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's present claim failed at the fifth step of the evaluation. At the first step, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of April 15, 2012, and met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2016. PageID.65-66. At the second step, the ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments as follows: a mood disorder not otherwise specified; bipolar disorder; posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); a panic disorder; antisocial personality disorder; alcohol dependence disorder; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine and lumbar spine; peripheral neuropathy; Dupuytren's contractures bilaterally; right shoulder degenerative joint disease; and cardiac dysrhythmias. PageID.66. At the third step, 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 in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. Id.

         The ALJ decided at the fourth step that:

[B]ased on all of the impairments, including the substance use disorder, the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except: he can climb no ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; the claimant can perform occasional crawling; he can perform no greater than frequent fingering or handling bilaterally; the claimant can perform no overhead reaching with his dominant light upper extremity; he is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks; the claimant can have no contact with the public; he can have occasional contact with co-workers and supervision; the claimant can perform no production rate work; he can tolerate no more than one change in the work setting per day; and the claimant will be tardy, need to leave work early, or will otherwise be absent four days per month on a regular and ongoing basis.

PageID.68.

         The ALJ made additional findings to determine the impact of plaintiff's substance abuse on his alleged disability. See 42 U.S.C § 423(d)(2)(C) (for purposes of obtaining Social Security benefits, “[a]n individual shall not be considered to be disabled . . . if alcoholism or drug addiction would . . . be a contributing factor material to the Commissioner's determination that the individual is disabled.”); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1535(b)(1) (“The key factor [the Commissioner] will examine in determining whether drug addiction or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability is whether [the Commissioner] would still find [the claimant] disabled if [the claimant] stopped using drugs or alcohol.”).

         The ALJ determined that if plaintiff stopped the substance use, he would have the same results through step three of the sequential evaluation. PageID.70. However, the ALJ found that if plaintiff stopped the substance use, he would have a more expansive residual functional capacity (RFC):

If the claimant stopped the substance use, the claimant would have the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except: he could climb no ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; the claimant could perform occasional crawling; he could perform no greater than frequent fingering or handling bilaterally; the claimant could perform no overhead reaching with his dominant right upper extremity; he would be limited to simple, ...

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