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Dejaeghere v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 31, 2017

JOHN LEE DEJAEGHERE Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DKT. 15, 16)

          STEPHANIE DAWKINS DAVIS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. Proceedings in this Court

         On February 25, 2015, plaintiff filed the instant suit seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's unfavorable decision disallowing benefits. (Dkt. 1). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 72.1(b)(3), District Judge Victoria A. Roberts referred this matter to Magistrate Judge Michael Hluchaniuk for the purpose of reviewing the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiff's claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (Dkt. 4). On January 5, 2016, this matter was reassigned to the undersigned Magistrate Judge. See Text-Only Order of reassignment dated 1/5/16. On February 24, 2016, the parties filed a notice of consent to this Magistrate Judge's authority, which was signed by Judge Roberts. (Dkt. 19, 20). This matter is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Dkt. 15, 16). Plaintiff also filed a reply brief in support of his motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. 17).

         B. Factual Background and Administrative Proceedings

         Plaintiff, John Lee Dejaeghere is a 50 year old man, who worked for approximately 20 years in heavy construction repairing roads. At 6'2” and 220 pounds, plaintiff was called upon to lift items weighing as much as 100 pounds and otherwise met the strenuous physical demands of a construction highway laborer. However, by September of 2009, plaintiff alleges that he was no longer able to handle the taxing demands on his body. Specifically, he claims that he experienced such severe pain in his neck, shoulders, hips, lower back and all of his joints that he simply could not keep up anymore. (Dkt. 13-2, Pg ID 71-73).

         Plaintiff filed the instant claims on January 25, 2012 for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging that he became disabled on September 15, 2009. (Dkt. 13-2, Pg ID 50). The claims were initially disapproved by the Commissioner on July 9, 2012. Id. Plaintiff requested a hearing and on September 12, 2013, plaintiff appeared with counsel before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Timothy C. Scallen, who considered the case de novo. (Dkt. 13-2, Pg ID 68-97). In a decision dated October 25, 2013, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled. (Dkt. 13-2, Pg ID 47-62). Plaintiff requested a review of that decision on November 14, 2013. (Dkt. 13-2, Pg ID 44). The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council, on December 29, 2014, denied plaintiff's request for review. (Dkt. 13-2, Pg ID 39-43); Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 543-44 (6th Cir. 2004).

         C. ALJ Findings

         Plaintiff was 43 years old on the alleged disability onset date. (Dkt. 13-2, Pg ID 61). Plaintiff had past relevant work as a construction worker, which involves heavy exertion. Id. The ALJ applied the five-step disability analysis to plaintiff's claim and found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Id. at 52. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff's cervical spondylitis, degenerative disc disease with pain in the neck and back with exacerbated pain after a motor vehicle accident in April 2012, carpal tunnel syndrome with neuropathy, and bilateral rotator cuff impingement syndrome were “severe” within the meaning of the second sequential step. Id. However, at step three, the ALJ found no evidence that plaintiff's combination of impairments met or equaled one of the listings in the regulations. Id. at 53.

         Thereafter, the ALJ determined the following as to plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except lifting and carrying less than 10 pounds and lifting and carrying between 10 pounds and 20 pounds less than occasionally; standing, walking and sitting up to 4 hours each in an 8 hour workday; occasional posturals (balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling); occasional climbing of stairs and ramps but no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional reaching, handling, and fingering; no unprotected heights or dangerous machinery; no extreme cold or humidity; and only simple, routine tasks.

Id. at 53. At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work, given his RFC. Id. at 61. At step five, the ALJ denied plaintiff benefits because he found that plaintiff could perform a significant number of jobs available in the national economy. Id. at 61-62.

         For the reasons set forth below, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED, defendant's motion for summary judgment is DENIED, the findings of the Commissioner are REVERSED, and this matter is REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

         II. ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

         A. Standard of Review

         This Court has original jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review under this statute is limited in that the court “must affirm the Commissioner's conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.” Longworth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). In deciding whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, “we do not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence, or decide questions of credibility.” Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007); Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984).

         If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Therefore, this Court may not reverse the Commissioner's decision merely because it disagrees or because “there exists in the record substantial evidence to support a different conclusion.” McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006); Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (en banc). 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.” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241; Jones, 336 F.3d at 475. “The substantial evidence standard presupposes that there is a ‘zone of choice' within which the Commissioner may proceed without interference from the courts.” Felisky v. Bowen, 35 F.3d 1027, 1035 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted) (citing, Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545).

         The scope of this Court's review is limited to an examination of the record only. Bass, 499 F.3d at 512-13; Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 357 (6th Cir. 2001). When reviewing the Commissioner's factual findings for substantial evidence, a reviewing court must consider the evidence in the record as a whole, including that evidence which might subtract from its weight. Wyatt v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992). “Both the court of appeals and the district court may look to any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the Appeals Council.” Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 535 (6th Cir. 2001). There is no requirement, however, that either the ALJ or the reviewing court must discuss every piece of evidence in the administrative record. Kornecky v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 167 Fed.Appx. 496, 508 (6th Cir. 2006) (“[a]n ALJ can consider all the evidence without directly addressing in his written decision every piece of evidence submitted by a party.”) (internal citation marks omitted); see also Van Der Maas v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 198 Fed.Appx. 521, 526 (6th Cir. 2006).

         B. Governing Law

         The “[c]laimant bears the burden of proving his entitlement to benefits.” Boyes v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 46 F.3d 510, 512 (6th Cir. 1994); accord, Bartyzel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 74 Fed.Appx. 515, 524 (6th Cir. 2003). There are several benefits programs under the Act, including the Disability Insurance Benefits Program (DIB) of Title II (42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq.) and the Supplemental Security Income Program (SSI) of Title XVI (42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq.). While the two programs have different eligibility requirements, “DIB and SSI are available only for those who have a ‘disability.'” Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). “Disability” means:

inability to engage in any 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 ...

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