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Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 2, 2017

PAULA JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          HON. JANET T. NEFF 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). 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.

         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 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 forty-six years of age on the date of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision. (PageID.78, 154, 166.) She previously obtained an Associate's Degree, and has worked as a registered nurse, as a nurse supervisor, and as a community nurse. (PageID.105, 143-144.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on January 28, 2015, alleging disability beginning January 9, 2014, due to bipolar disorder, depression, borderline personality disorder, interstitial cystitis, anxiety, and suicide attempts. (PageID.154-166, 238-250.) Plaintiff's applications were denied on April 8, 2015, after which time she requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.181-188, 192-193.) On September 29, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Donna Grit for an administrative hearing with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.100-149.) In a written decision dated October 16, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.78-98.) On May 4, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.40-45.) This decision was upheld on July 29, 2016, after Plaintiff requested her case be reopened. (PageID.36-37.)

         ALJ'S DECISION

         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).[1] 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 Grit determined that Plaintiff's claim failed at the fifth step of the evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA) during the period between her alleged onset date through January 21, 2015. Specifically, Plaintiff earned well over SGA threshold amounts in each quarter of 2014 and the first quarter of 2015. (PageID.83.) The ALJ further determined that since January 21, 2015, Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity. (PageID.84.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of: (1) obesity; (2) interstitial cystitis/pelvic dysfunction/stress incontinence; (3) a bipolar disorder; and (4) a personality disorder. (PageID.84.) 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.84-86.) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she can understand, remember, and perform simple tasks, make simple decisions, and adapt to routine changes in the workplace. She can have occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors.

(PageID.86.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.91-92.) 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 machine tender (101, 000 positions), line attendant (125, 000 positions), and as a packager (122, 000 positions). (PageID.144-145.) 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.93.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from January 9, 2014, the alleged disability onset date, through ...


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