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Morris v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 29, 2017

LINDA S. MORRIS, Plaintiff,



         This is a social security action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act. 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.


         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 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.


         Plaintiff was thirty-three years of age on the date of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision. (PageID.57, 139.) She attended special education classes, and received a high school diploma in June 2008. (PageID.109, 221.) Plaintiff previously has been employed as a cashier-checker and as a conveyor feeder. (PageID.127.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on March 14, 2013, alleging disability beginning February 1, 2009, due to degenerated discs in her mid back, scoliosis, bone spurs, a learning disability, only second grade reading, spelling, and math levels, and carpal tunnel syndrome. (PageID.139, 202-203.) Plaintiff's application was denied on June 28, 2013, after which time she requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.152-157.) On November 17, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with her representative before ALJ Christopher Helms for an administrative hearing with testimony being offered by Plaintiff, Ms. Carlyn Morris (Plaintiff's mother-in-law), and a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.76-137.) In a written decision dated January 20, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.57-75.) On February 24, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.45-50.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Plaintiff's insured status expired on September 30, 2013. (PageID.139.) To be eligible for DIB under Title II of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish that she became disabled prior to the expiration of her insured status. See 42 U.S.C. § 423; Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1182 (6th Cir. 1990).


         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.

         Plaintiff has the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by her impairments and that she is precluded from performing past relevant work through step four. Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). At step five, it is the Commissioner's burden “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.

         ALJ Helms determined 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 between her alleged disability onset date and her date last insured. (PageID.62-63.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of scoliosis of the thoracic spine; degenerative changes of the cervical and lumbar spine; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; migraine headaches; and a history of special education. (PageID.63.) 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 any listing in the Listing of Impairments. (PageID.63-66.) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments, through her date last insured, to perform:

light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that the claimant could only occasionally handle and finger bilaterally. The claimant could occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant 5. If an individual's impairment is so severe as to preclude the performance of past work, other factors including age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity must be considered to determine if other work can be performed. (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f)). could tolerate only moderate noise; and work that did not require direct exposure to sunlight. The claimant was limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks requiring only simple work-related decisions; and could handle very few changes in the work setting.

(PageID.66.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.70-71.) At the fifth step, the ALJ questioned the VE to determine whether a significant number of jobs exist in the economy that Plaintiff could have performed through her date last insured, given her limitations. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform other work as a surveillance systems monitor (1, 900 regional and 85, 000 national positions), and as a callout operator (1, 100 regional and 32, 000 national positions). (PageID.128-134.) 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.71-72.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from February 1, 2009, the alleged disability onset date, through September 30, 2013, Plaintiff's date last insured. (PageID.72.)


         Plaintiff has filed an initial brief contending that the ALJ's decision contains legal errors and is not supported by substantial evidence for four primary reasons. (ECF No. 14.) The Commissioner has also filed a brief, asserting that the issues raised in Plaintiff's brief are meritless. (ECF No. 15.) Plaintiff has filed a reply brief maintaining that the Commissioner has failed to demonstrate the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. (ECF No.16.)[2]

         1. The ALJ's Evaluation of Listing 12.05(c).

         The Listing of Impairments, detailed in 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, identifies various impairments which, if present to the severity detailed therein, result in a finding that the claimant is disabled. A claimant bears the burden of demonstrating that she meets or equals a listed impairment at the third step of the sequential evaluation. Evans v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 820 F.2d 161, 164 (6th Cir. 1987). In order to be considered disabled under the Listing of Impairments, “a claimant must establish that [her] condition either is permanent, is expected to result in death, or is expected to last at least 12 months, as well as show that [her] condition meets or equals one of the listed impairments.” Id. An impairment satisfies the listing only when it manifests the specific findings described in the medical criteria for that particular impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(d). A claimant does not satisfy a particular listing unless all of the requirements of the listing are present. See Hale v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 816 F.2d 1078, 1083 (6th Cir. 1987); King v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 968, 973 (6th Cir. 1984); see, e.g., Thacker v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 93 F. App'x 725, 728 (6th Cir. 2004) (“[w]hen a claimant alleges that he meets or equals a listed impairment, he must present specific medical findings that satisfy the various tests listed in the description of the applicable impairment or present medical evidence which describes how the impairment has such equivalency”).

         Plaintiff argues that she is entitled to relief because the ALJ improperly determined that she does not satisfy Listing 12.05(C) (Intellectual Disability) of the Listings.[3] Listing 12.05 provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

12.05 Intellectual disability: Intellectual disability refers to significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning with deficits in adaptive functioning initially manifested during the developmental period; i.e., the evidence demonstrates or supports onset of the impairment before age 22.
The required level of severity for this disorder is met when the requirements in A, B, C, or D are satisfied.
C. A valid verbal, performance, or full scale IQ of 60 through 70 and a physical or other mental impairment imposing additional and significant ...

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