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Ryan v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 2, 2017

CINDY R. RYAN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          HON. PAUL L. MALONEY United States District Judge.

         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) denying Plaintiff's claim for supplemental security income (SSI) under Title 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 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 thirty-eight years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.43, 167.) She completed high school and has worked in the past as a cashier / checker, sale attendant, and as a sorter. (PageID.122, 287.) Plaintiff has previously applied for benefits in 2007, 2010, and 2012, which all resulted in unfavorable decisions. Plaintiff sought review of the 2012 decision in federal court and, on March 31, 2015, Magistrate Judge Green affirmed the decision of the Commissioner. See Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 1:13-cv-1380 (W.D. Mich. Marc. 31, 2015) (ECF No. 13).

         While her federal case was pending, Plaintiff also filed a new application for SSI on December 24, 2013, alleging that she had been disabled since August 13, 2012, due to bipolar disorder, depression, back pain, leg pain, migraines, shaking, and diabetes.[1] (PageID.167, 259-263.) This application was denied upon initial review on February 28, 2014, after which time Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.183-189.) On February 24, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Stanley Chin for an administrative hearing at which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.102-126.) On April 8, 2015, the ALJ issued his written decision, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.43-65.) On March 21, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.39-38.) 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. § 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. § 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. § 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 Chin determined Plaintiff's claim failed at step five. At step one the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 24, 2013, her application date. (PageID.48.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of: (1) migraine headaches; (2) obesity; (3) cervical and lumbar spine disorders; (4) bipolar disorder; (5) schizoaffective disorder; (6) anxiety disorder; and (7) personality disorder. (PageID.49.) At step three, 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 found in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. (PageID.49-52.) At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments to perform:

sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a): The claimant is limited to lifting up to twenty pounds occasionally and lifting up to ten pounds frequently. She is limited [to] standing and walking for up to two hours and sitting for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. She is limited to no ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and no crouching or crawling. She is limited to occasional ramps or stairs and occasional balancing, stooping, and kneeling. She is to occasionally avoid the use of moving machinery and exposure to unprotected heights. She is further limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements involving only simple, work-related decisions and routine workplace changes. She is limited to occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors.

(PageID.52.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.58.) 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 work in the following representative jobs: addresser (25, 819 national positions), table worker (13, 738 national positions) and surveillance system monitor (17, 284 national positions). (PageID.122-124.) Based on this record, the ...


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