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Lasorda v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 6, 2017

SHARLENE LYNETTE LASORDA, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          PAUL L. MALONEY United States District Judge.

         This is a social security action brought under 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. 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.

         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-four years of age as of her alleged disaiblity onset date. (PageID.32, 100.) She obtained a high school education, attended some college, and was previously employed as a senior vice president of a bank and as a life insurance agent. (PageID.53, 71.) Plaintiff applied for DIB on June 4, 2013, alleging that she had been disabled since February 11, 2012, due anxiety and depression.[1] (PageID.100, 161-173.) Plaintiff's application was denied on August 5, 2013, after which time she requested a hearing before an ALJ. Around the same time, Plaintiff filed her SSI application. (PageID.114-117, 120, 161-173.) Plaintiff's SSI application was elevated such that it was considered along with her DIB application at the August 22, 2014, administrative hearing with ALJ Thomas L. Walters. (PageID.48-77.) In a partially favorable decision dated October 2, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to January 8, 2013, but became disabled on that date and continued to be disabled through the date of the decision. For purposes of Plaintiff's DIB application, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time through June 30, 2012, her date last insured.[2] (PageID.32-47.) On March 2, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.27-31.) 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).[3] 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.

         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 Walters determined that prior to January 8, 2013, 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. (PageID.39.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of: (1) anxiety; (2) depression; (3) status post right knee arthroscopy; and (4) transient ischemic attack (TIA). (PageID.39-40.) 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.40.) At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments to perform:

light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she cannot walk beyond one to two city blocks at any one time. The claimant can only have occasional contact with the public; and can not work around machinery or unprotected heights. She can only do simple, repetitive tasks with a specific vocational preparation (SVP) rating of 1 or 2.

         (PageID.40.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.42.)

         At the fifth step, the ALJ concluded that prior to January 8, 2013, Plaintiff was an individual closely approaching advanced age and considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she could have performed. In making this finding the ALJ relied on the testimony of the vocational expert from the administrative hearing. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The expert testified that Plaintiff could perform other work as a small product assembler (223, 000 national jobs), information clerk (56, 000 national jobs), and garment sorter (223, 000 national jobs). (PageID.72.) 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 prior to January 8, 2013. (PageID.43.)

         Beginning January 8, 2013, however, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's age category changed to an individual of advanced age. (PageID.42.) Therefore, the ALJ determined that beginning on this date, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, a finding of “disabled” was directed by application of Medical-Vocational Rule 202.06.

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to January 8, 2013, but became disabled on that date and continued to be disabled through the date of decision, October 2, 2014. (PageID.44.) Plaintiff, however, was not under a disability at any time prior to her date last insured of June 30, 2012. (PageID.44.)

         DISCUSSION

         1. The ALJ's RFC Determination is Supported by ...


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