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Hornback v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 30, 2017

JOYCE ANN HORNBACK, 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) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI 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.)

         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 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.

         PROCEDURAL POSTURE

         Plaintiff was forty-eight years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.34, 189.) She completed her formal education after the tenth grade, and was previously employed as a cashier / checker. (PageID.171-172, 310.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on October 9, 2012, alleging disability beginning September 22, 2012, due to a thyroid disorder, double vision, and depression. (PageID.189, 297, 306.) Plaintiff's applications were denied on January 25, 2013, after which time she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (PageID.275-285.) On November 12, 2013, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ William Reamon for an administrative hearing at which time Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.54-116.) A supplemental hearing was held on August 14, 2014, with additional testimony offered by Plaintiff, a VE, and Dr. Jeffrey Horwitz, M.D., a non-examining medical expert. (PageID.117-185.) In a written decision dated August 29, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.34-53.) On February 2, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.24-27.) 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), 416.920(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), 416.920(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, 416.945.

         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 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 step five. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date of September 22, 2012. (PageID.39.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) Graves' disease; (2) visual impairment; (3) affective disorder; and (4) anxiety disorder. (PageID.39-41.) 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.41-43.) At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant must be allowed to wear one eye patch, and she cannot be required to perform work presented from the side of her eye patch. Moreover, the claimant cannot be required to perform reading, such as reading numbers on a screen or a paper, as a basic part of her work functioning. The claimant cannot perform commercial driving, perform hilo driving, or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant must also avoid exposure to dangerous moving machinery and unprotected heights. Additionally, the claimant is limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions. The claimant can have no more than occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the general public.

(PageID.43.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work. (PageID.51.) At the fifth step, the ALJ questioned the VE to determine whether a significant number of jobs exist in the economy that Plaintiff could perform given her limitations. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The expert testified that Plaintiff could perform other work as a light assembler (14, 000 regional jobs), packager (6, 300 regional jobs), and sorter (3, 100 regional jobs). (PageID.174-179.) Based on this record, the ALJ found ...


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