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Blackwell v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 8, 2017




         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 fifty-two years of age on the date of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision. (PageID.53, 162, 177.) She has completed high school, and attended one year of college. (PageID.88.) Plaintiff has also previously worked as a data entry clerk. (PageID.125.) In addition to the application presently before this Court, Plaintiff has applied for DIB and SSI on a number of other occasions, including July 2008, January and February 2009, and January 2010, all of which resulted in unfavorable decisions and were not pursued beyond the administrative level. In the last application, ALJ Donna Grit issued her unfavorable decision on November 10, 2011. The Appeals Council declined review on May 22, 2013. (PageID.56.)

         Plaintiff filed the instant application only a few weeks later, on June 18, 2013, alleging disability beginning November 11, 2011, [1] due to diabetes, COPD, anxiety, depression, arthritis, chronic pain on left arm, cervical spine fusion surgery, and carpal tunnel syndrome in the right upper extremity. (PageID.162-163, 177-178, 268-279.) Plaintiff's applications were denied on October 10, 2013, after which time she requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.198-223.) Shortly before the hearing, on November 4, 2014, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to October 1, 2012. (PageID.297.) On November 6, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Michael S. Condon for an administrative hearing with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.83-136.) In a written decision dated January 13, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.53-81.) On March 25, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.25-29.)


         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 Condon 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 amended alleged onset date. (PageiD.59.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of: (1) asthma/chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); (2) type I diabetes mellitus with peripheral neuropathy; (3) bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, s/p right carpal tunnel release; (4) s/p left wrist infection with surgeries; (5) adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood; (6) history of anxiety and depression; and (7) history of alcohol abuse/dependence. The ALJ further found Plaintiff had a number of non-severe impairments. (PageID.59-62.) 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.62-64.) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform less than a full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). She could lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; and in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks, she could stand and walk for a total of about 6 hours and could sit for a total of about 6 hours. She could do no constant pushing or pulling with the upper extremities; could not climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; could frequently climb ramps and stairs; could frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; could frequently reach, handle, finger and feel; should not operate leg or foot controls with either lower extremity; should have no more than occasional exposure to temperature extremes, wetness, vibration, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poorly ventilated areas; and should have no more than occasional exposure to hazards, including working at unprotected heights and around dangerous moving machinery. She would be limited to doing unskilled work and work that could be learned in 30 days or less based on education and on other mental limitations.

(PageID.64-65.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.73.) 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 cleaner / housekeeper (9, 000 regional positions), inspector / packager (8, 000 regional positions), and as an assembler / press operator (7, 000 regional positions). (PageID.126-127.) Based on this record, the ...

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