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Cassidy v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 12, 2017



          PAUL L. MALONEY United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff brings this pro se action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.[1] 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 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.


         Plaintiff was forty-six years of age as of her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.58, 154.) She previously obtained a high school education and had been employed as a real estate sales agent, a machine packager, and as a retail cashier. (PageID.121-122, 310.) Plaintiff previously applied for benefits on February 23, 2011, alleging disability beginning May 30, 2010. That application was denied by an ALJ on October 12, 2012, and does not appear to have been further pursued. (PageID.137-153.) In the instant matter, Plaintiff applied for benefits on April 30, 2013, again alleging disability beginning May 30, 2010. Plaintiff alleged she was disabled due to a herniated disc, manic depression, and lower back pain. (PageID.154, 166, 255-267.) Plaintiff's applications were denied on June 27, 2013, after which time she requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.181-191.) On November 24, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Christopher Helms for an administrative hearing with testimony offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.83-135.) In an unfavorable decision dated December 5, 2014, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.58-82.) On March 24, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.24-29.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         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).[2] 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 Helms determined that Plaintiff's claim failed at step five. The ALJ began by acknowledging Plaintiff's prior application for benefits, and stating he found no reason why that application should not remain final. (PageID.62.) Applying the doctrine of res judicata, the ALJ concluded the prior decision was administratively final, and stated that he would only consider the evidence concerning the period subsequent to that decision, dated October 12, 2012. (PageID.62.) Proceeding with the evaluation, at step one the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the prior decision, October 12, 2012. (PageID.64.) At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of: (1) multilevel degenerative disc disease; (2) the late effects of varicose veins and long-term anticoagulant therapy; (3) a dysthymic disorder; and (4) an obese body habitus. (PageID.64-65.) At step three, the ALJ determined 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.66-69.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments to perform:

sedentary work3 as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except the claimant can only occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and/or climb ramps and stairs. The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. However, the claimant requires the option to alternate between sitting and standing for five to ten minutes, every thirty minutes. The claimant should avoid all exposure to work at unprotected heights, and around moving, mechanical parts. Lastly, the claimant is limited to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks and making simple, work-related decisions.
3. The Regulations define sedentary work as the ability to occasionally lift 10 pounds maximum, stand and/or walk for up to 2 hours in an 8 hour work period, and sit for up to 6 hours in an 8 hour work period (20 CFR 404.1567, 416.967, and SSR 83-10).

(PageID.69) (emphasis in original.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of ...

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