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Forrest v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 10, 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 his claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II 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 forty-three years of age on the date of the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision. (PageID.44, 114.) He has completed high school and was previously employed as a welder. (PageID.213-214.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on May 3, 2013, alleging disability beginning March 1, 2012, due to social phobia, spinal stenosis, severe depression, arthritis, and a hernia. (PageID.114-115, 198-204.) Plaintiff's application was denied on September 10, 2013, after which time he requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.132-135, 142-143.) On September 24, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with his counsel before ALJ Paul W. Jones for an administrative hearing with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.60-105.) In a written decision dated October 20, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.44-59.) On March 29, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.38-41.) This action followed.


         The social security regulations articulate a five-step sequential process for evaluating disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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). 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.

         Plaintiff has the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by his impairments and that he 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 Jones 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 his alleged disability onset date. (PageID.49.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of: (1) spinal degenerative disc disease; (2) dysfunction of the major joint, left knee; (3) affective disorder; (4) anxiety; and (5) substance abuse (ethanol and marijuana). (PageID.49.) 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.49-51.) 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), except he can only stand/walk for about two hours and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday, with normal breaks; requires a sit/stand option, at will, provided he is not off task more than 10% of the work period; occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; in simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; with occasional changes in the work setting; and occasional interaction with the public, coworkers and supervision.

(PageID.51.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (PageID.54.) 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 his limitations. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform other work as an assembler (200, 000 national jobs), inspector (75, 000 national jobs), and packer (150, 000 national jobs). (PageID.87-89.) 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.55.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from March 1, 2012, the alleged disability onset date, through October 20, 2014, the date of decision. (PageID.55-56.)


         1. The ALJ's Evaluation of Ms. Nicole Degraff's Opinion.

         In support of his application for benefits, Plaintiff submitted a statement from Ms. Nicole Degraff, a certified physician assistant. Ms. Degraff stated that Plaintiff had been:

under our care for severe lumbar radiculopathy, bilateral knee instability, and severe depression with a history of alcohol abuse in remission. It is unsafe to himself or others for him to engage in work of any kind. He needs to have the testing and see the proper specialists in order to better treat his medical and psychiatric conditions however he is unable to afford this. His work restrictions are indefinite.

(PageID.315.). After summarizing the note's contents, the ALJ gave the following consideration to Ms. ...

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