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Sarp v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 14, 2017


          Stephanie Dawkins Davis Magistrate Judge.


          THOMAS L. LUDINGTON United States District Judge.

         On January 13, 2017, Plaintiff Jeffrey Lee Sarp filed a complaint seeking judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of disability benefits. ECF No. 1. Sarp represented himself pro se during the proceedings before the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). After the hearing, the ALJ concluded that Sarp was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's denial of benefits the Commissioner's final decision. The case was referred to Magistrate Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis. After the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, Judge Davis issued a report recommending that Sarp's motion for summary judgment be granted, the Commissioner's motion denied, the Commissioner's finding be reversed, and the matter be remanded for further proceedings under Sentence Four. ECF Nos. 15, 17, 19. The Commissioner timely filed objections. ECF No. 20.

         Pursuant to a de novo review of the record, the Commissioner's objections will be sustained and the report and recommendation will be rejected. In his motion for summary judgment, Sarp advanced seven different allegations of error in the ALJ's denial of benefits. ECF No. 15. Because Judge Davis's report and recommendation addressed only two of those seven arguments, the matter will be referred to Judge Davis for further consideration.


         Neither party has specifically objected to Judge Davis's summary of the background and administrative proceedings of the case. For that reason, the summary is adopted in full. A brief reiteration will be provided here. Sarp was 53 years old at the alleged onset date of the disability, which is May 21, 2012. He believes he is disabled based on blindness in his right eye and his psychological bipolar disorder. He also asserts that he has a borderline personality disorder and substance abuse disorder. Sarp represented himself during the administrative proceedings. The ALJ found that Sarp had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date and that his medical conditions were severe impairments. The ALJ found that Sarp had the residual functional capacity to perform medium work, with certain limitations, and concluded that Sarp could perform a significant number of jobs despite his limitations.

         In his written opinion, the ALJ summarized the medical evidence in the record. The ALJ asserted that, at the benefits hearing, Sarp testified that he has been disabled since May 21, 2012, due to bipolar disorder, depression, poor vision, and back problems. ALJ Decision at 14, ECF No. 11. Sarp was assessed by Hollis Evans, a licensed social worker, with bipolar disorder and personality disorder. Mr. Evans met with Sarp several times. A Dr. Qadir also examined Sarp once, assessing him with bipolar disorder and a history of alcohol and marijuana abuse and finding that Sarp appeared “manic” and “spoke very rapidly with racing thought process.” Id. at 15. Mr. Evans twice assessed Sarp with a Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) Score of 49. Id. at 16. Dr. Qadir assessed Sarp as having a GAF score of 46. GAF scores are meant to reflect an individual's impairment in social, occupational, or school functioning. Id. A GAF score is not meant to evaluate psychological limitations; rather, GAF scores reflect psychological, social and occupational functioning. Id. A GAF score from 41-50 reflects “serious” impairments in such functioning. A state agency consultant, Dr. Pinaire, reviewed Sarp's medical record and concluded that Sarp was “capable of performing simple one to two step tasks on a routine and regular basis.” Id. The ALJ accorded Dr. Pinaire's conclusion significant weight.

         Judge Davis's report and recommendation concluded that the ALJ “gave no weight to and, in fact, virtually ignored the opinion of Dr. Qadir.” Rep. & Rec. at 17, ECF No. 19. The report further criticized the ALJ for discounting Sarp's GAF scores: “The record's consistency with regard to plaintiff's assigned GAF scores suggests the ALJ's dismissal of these scores as a matter of course was an error.” Id. at 19-20. Finally, the report finds that “substantial evidence does not support assigning Dr. Pinaire's opinion significant weight.” Id. at 22.


         When reviewing a case under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court must affirm the Commissioner's conclusions “absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standards or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.” Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997) (citations omitted). Substantial evidence is “such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).

         Under the Social Security Act (“The Act”), a claimant is entitled to disability benefits if he can demonstrate that he is in fact disabled. Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). Disability is defined by the Act as an “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 for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505, 416.05. A plaintiff carries the burden of establishing that he meets this definition. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(5)(A); see also Dragon v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 470 F. App'x 454, 459 (6th Cir. 2012).

         Corresponding federal regulations outline a five-step sequential process to determine whether an individual qualifies as disabled:

First, the claimant must demonstrate that he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of disability. Second, the claimant must show that he suffers from a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment. Third, if the claimant shows that his impairment meets or medically equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, he is deemed disabled. Fourth, the ALJ determines whether, based on the claimant's residual functional capacity, the claimant can perform his past relevant work, in which case the claimant is not disabled. Fifth, the ALJ determines whether, based on the claimant's residual functional capacity, as well as his age, education, and work experience, the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, in which case the claimant is not disabled.

Courter v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 479 F. App'x 713, 719 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 548 (6th Cir. 2004)). Through Step Four, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by his impairments and the fact that he is precluded from performing her past relevant work. At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner 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. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n. 5 (1987).


         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72, a party may object to and seek review of a Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(2). Objections must be stated with specificity. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 151 (1985) (citation omitted). If objections are made, “[t]he district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). De novo review requires at least a review of the evidence before the Magistrate Judge; the Court may not act solely on the basis of a Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation. See Hill v. Duriron Co., 656 F.2d 1208, 1215 (6th Cir. 1981). After reviewing the evidence, the Court is free to accept, reject, or modify the findings or recommendations of the Magistrate Judge. See Lardie v. Birkett, 221 F.Supp.2d 806, 807 (E.D. Mich. 2002).

         Only those objections that are specific are entitled to a de novo review under the statute. Mira v. Marshall, 806 F.2d 636, 637 (6th Cir. 1986). “The parties have the duty to pinpoint those portions of the magistrate's report that the district court must specially consider.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). A general objection, or one that merely restates the arguments previously presented, does not sufficiently identify alleged errors on the part of the magistrate judge. See VanDiver v. Martin, 304 F.Supp.2d 934, 937 (E.D.Mich.2004). An “objection” that does nothing more than disagree with a magistrate judge's determination, “without explaining the source of the error, ” is not considered a valid objection. Howard v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 932 F.2d 505, 509 (6th Cir. 1991). Without specific objections, “[t]he functions of the district court are ...

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