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Bischoff v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 11, 2017

JAMES BISCHOFF, 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. 12.)

         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 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-seven years of age on the date of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision. (PageID.39, 113.) He completed his formal education after the tenth grade, and was previously employed as a companion, drill press operator, and as a die casting machine operator. (PageID.94, 211.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on May 22, 2013, alleging disability beginning March 1, 2009, due to an inability to concentrate, a mental illness, and degenerative disc disease. (PageID.113, 124, 177-193.) Plaintiff's application was denied on October 14, 2013, after which time he requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.138-145, 149-150.) On September 25, 2014, shortly before the administrative hearing in this matter, Plaintiff amended his onset date to February 28, 2013, the date of his fifty-fifth birthday. (PageID.285.) On October 8, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with his counsel before ALJ MaryJoan McNamara for an administrative hearing with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.58-111.) In a written decision dated April 20, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.39-57.) On March 16, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.32-36.) 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 he can satisfy his burden by demonstrating that his impairments are so severe that he is unable to perform his previous work and cannot, considering his 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 his 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).

         ALJ McNamara 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 since February 28, 2013, his amended alleged onset date. (PageID.44.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, hypertension, and cognitive disorder. (PageID.44-46.) 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.47-48.) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments, to perform:

medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except that he can only lift 20 pounds frequently, lift 50 pounds occasionally, can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, can frequently climb ramps or stairs, can unlimitedly balance, and can frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Moreover, the claimant is able to understand and carry out simple one to two step instructions, is able to engage in ordinary work routines that do not change much, and is able to interact appropriately with others but would be best off working with things rather than people, and if he is working with people, he should have no more than occasional interaction.

(PageID.48.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (PageID.52.) 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 his limitations. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform other work as a laundry worker (377, 000 national positions), auto detailer (195, 000 national positions), and kitchen helper (282, 000 national positions). (PageID.94-96.) Based on this record, the ALJ ...


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