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Draper v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 24, 2017

MISTY S. DRAPER, Plaintiff,



         This is a social security action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's decision denying her 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.


         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 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 thirty years of age on the date of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision. (PageID.33, 145.) She completed two years of college, and was previously employed as a cashier/stocker, deli clerk, general laborer, inspector, and quality inspector, although the ALJ determined none of this work amounted to past relevant work. (PageID.47, 322-323.) Plaintiff previously applied for benefits on July 21, 2010, alleging that she had been disabled since July 15, 2009. (PageID.125.) On February 10, 2012, Plaintiff's application was denied by ALJ Paul W. Jones, and on June 10, 2013, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision. (PageID.122-143.) Plaintiff sought review of that decision in federal court, but on December 18, 2013, Plaintiff filed a motion to voluntarily dismiss her case, which was subsequently granted. (See Draper v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 1:13-cv-862 ECF No. 13 (W.D. Mich. Dec. 18, 2013)).

         In this instant matter, Plaintiff filed for benefits on November 19, 2013, alleging disability beginning February 11, 2012 (the date following the day of ALJ Jones' decision) due to chronic pain, post-surgical chronic back pain, chronic knee and ankle pain, depression, affective disorder, and anxiety. (PageID.145-146, 155-156, 289-298.) Plaintiff's applications were denied on December 18, 2013, after which time she requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.168-188.) On April 20, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Thomas English for an administrative hearing with testimony being offered by Plaintiff, a medical expert, and a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.57-110.) In a written decision dated May 1, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.33-55.) On April 21, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.20-22.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[1]


         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 English determined that 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 her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.39.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of: (1) status-post right knee medial patellofemoral ligament repair of the right knee; (2) chronic left lateral patellar instability of knee status-post open reduction lower left leg; (3) affective disorder; (4) reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome; and (5) Degenerative Disk Disease. (PageID.39.) 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 the Listing of Impairments. (PageID.39-41.) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except the claimant must alternate between sitting and standing every 30 minutes, for 30 minutes at a time. The claimant can never use foot controls bilaterally, climb ladders and scaffolds, kneel, crouch, or crawl; occasionally climb ramps and stairs and stoop; and frequently balance. The claimant can tolerate no exposure to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts, and must avoid concentrated exposure to vibrations. The claimant can understand, remember, and carryout simple, routine, and repetitive work tasks (not at a production rate pace).

(PageID.41.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (PageID.47.) 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 her limitations. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform other work as a hand packager (20, 000 positions), materials handler (40, 000 positions), and as an inspector (10, 000 positions). (PageID.102-106.) 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. (PageID.48.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from February 11, 2012, the alleged disability onset date, through ...

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