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Greene-Howard v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Northern Division

May 15, 2017

JULIE GREENE-HOWARD, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER ON CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DOCS. 16, 19)

          Patricia T. Morris United States Magistrate Judge.

         A. Introduction and Procedural History

         This is an action for judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Julie Greene-Howard's claim for disability benefits under the Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) program of Title II, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq, and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. (Doc. 1; Tr. 1-3). The case is before the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to the parties' consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), E.D. Mich. LR 72.1(b)(3), and by Notice of Reference. (Docs. 3, 13, 15). The matter is currently before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 16, 19).

         Plaintiff was fifty-two years old as of February 13, 2015, the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 22, 145). Her applications for benefits were initially denied on April 17, 2013. (Tr. 81-82). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which took place before ALJ Lisa Leslie on January 27, 2015. (Tr. 27-68). Plaintiff, represented by attorney Ms. Ilanski, testified, as did vocational expert (“VE”) Ms. McFarland. (Id.). On February 13, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision in which she found Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 10-22). On May 4, 2015, the Appeals Council denied review. (Tr. 1-4). Plaintiff filed for judicial review of that final decision on July 14, 2016. (Doc. 1).

         B. Standard of Review

         The district court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The district court's review is restricted solely to determining whether the “Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.” Sullivan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 595 F. App'x 502, 506 (6th Cir. 2014) (internal citations omitted). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007) (internal quotations omitted).

         The Court must examine the administrative record as a whole, and may consider any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the ALJ. See Walker v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 884 F.2d 241, 245 (6th Cir. 1989). The Court will not “try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor decide questions of credibility.” Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, “it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion.” Id. at 286 (internal citations omitted).

         C. Framework for Disability Determinations

         Under the Act, “DIB and SSI are available only for those who have a ‘disability.'” Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). “Disability” means the inability

to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than [twelve] months.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (DIB); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a) (SSI). The Commissioner's regulations provide that disability is to be determined through the application of a five-step sequential analysis:

Step One: If the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Two: If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments that “significantly limits . . . physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Three: If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, has a severe impairment that is expected to last for at least twelve months, and the severe impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the regulations, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled regardless of age, education or work experience.
Step Four: If the claimant is able to perform his or her past relevant work, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Five: Even if the claimant is unable to perform his or her past relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, in view of his or her age, education, and work experience, benefits are denied.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. See also Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001). “Through step four, the claimant bears the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by [his or] her impairments and the fact that she is precluded from performing [his or] her past relevant work.” Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). The burden transfers to the Commissioner if the analysis reaches the fifth step without a finding that the claimant is not disabled. Combs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 459 F.3d 640, 643 (6th Cir. 2006). At the fifth step, the Commissioner is required to show that “other jobs in significant numbers exist in the national economy that [the claimant] could perform given [his or] her RFC [residual functional capacity] and considering relevant vocational factors.” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), (g)).

         D. ALJ Findings

         Following the five-step sequential analysis, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 22). The ALJ found at Step One that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity following the alleged onset date, March 30, 2010. (Tr. 12). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “status post amputation of four fingers, asthma/chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse.” (Tr. 12-14). At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's combination of impairments did not meet or equal one of the listed impairments. (Tr. 14-15). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, with additional limitations as follows:

No fine manipulation with the left hand; no concentrated exposure to extreme heat, cold, humidity, fumes, odors, dust or other pulmonary irritants; she is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks.

         (Tr. 15-19). At Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to return to her past relevant work. (Tr. 20). At Step Five, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could still perform jobs which exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and was thus not disabled. (Tr. 20-22).

         E. Administrative Record

         1. Medical Evidence

         The Court has thoroughly reviewed Plaintiff's medical record. In lieu of summarizing her medical history here, the Court will make references and provide citations to the record as necessary in its discussion of the parties' arguments.

         2. Application Reports and Administrative Hearing

         a. Plaintiff's Function Report

         Plaintiff completed a function report on April 4, 2014, wherein she wrote that she was disabled by depression, colitis, amputation of fingers on her left hand, carpal tunnel syndrome, and back pain. (Tr. 213). She wrote that depression interfered with her sleep, eating, and communication with others. (Id.). Her colitis prevented her from “leav[ing] the bathroom for hours” and caused vomiting. (Id.). Amputation of fingers on her left hand caused carpal tunnel syndrome on her right. (Id.). Cervical fusion caused back pain which prevented her from completing “almost any kind of physical labor.” (Id.). Plaintiff's daily activities were composed solely of watching television and eating. (Tr. 214). Her hobbies included watching television and reading books; she described the frequency with which she performed these activities by exclaiming “it's all I do!!!!” (Tr. 215). Plaintiff sometimes experienced insomnia followed by periods of sleeping for a full twenty-four hours. (Tr. 214). She was sometimes “too depressed” to perform personal care activities like dressing, bathing, caring for hair, shaving, and feeding herself. (Id.).

         Plaintiff used lists and reminders from friends to ensure she performed personal care and took medication on time. (Tr. 215). She prepared her own food, consisting of yogurt and canned food. (Id.). She also washed laundry and dishes. (Id.). Plaintiff rarely went outside due to social anxiety. (Tr. 216). She could not go outside alone due to anxiety, and chose not to drive vehicles. (Id.). However, she shopped in stores for food “very infrequently.” (Id.). She did not spend time with others. (Tr. 217). However, Plaintiff also wrote that she had no difficulty getting along with others. (Tr. 218).

         Plaintiff checked boxes indicating that she was limited in terms of lifting, squatting, bending, sitting, kneeling, stair climbing, memory, completing tasks, concentration, using hands, and getting along with others. (Tr. 218). She wrote that her back pain prevented her from “physical movement” and her depression caused her to lack “any desire or energy.” (Id.). She was unable to estimate her ability to walk, writing “depends (asthma).” (Id.). She was likewise unable to estimate her ability to pay attention, writing “varies.” (Id.). She did not finish what she started, but could follow written or oral instructions “pretty well.” (Id.). ...


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