United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division
L. MALONEY United States District Judge.
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
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.
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).
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.
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).
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). 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.
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.
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 ...