United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division
DEBRA S. BLACKWELL, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,
T. NEFF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
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).
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.
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.
filed the instant application only a few weeks later, on June
18, 2013, alleging disability beginning November 11, 2011,
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.)
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). 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.
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.
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
(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 ...