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Lyman v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 23, 2017

DOREEN A. LYMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          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) 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.

         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 fifty-seven years of age as of her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.77.) She obtained a high school education and previously worked as a secretary. (PageID.70-71, 163.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on October 14, 2013, alleging disability beginning September 3, 2013, due to spondylolisthesis, osteoarthritis, osteopenia, and chronic pain. (PageID.77, 144-145.) Plaintiff's application was denied on January 10, 2014, after which time Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.89-93.) On February 4, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ James J. Kent for an administrative hearing with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.51-75.) In a written decision dated March 16, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.36-50.) On December 7, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.27-32.) This action followed.

         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).[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 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 Kent determined that Plaintiff's claim failed at the fourth step of the evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.41.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease and osteoarthritis. (PageID.41.) 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.42.) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except she can lift up to 10 pounds occasionally and she can stand and walk for up to two hours and sit for up to six hours in an eight hour workday. She requires a sit stand option alternatively at will provided she is not off task more than 10% of the workday. She can only occasionally climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds, ramps and stairs. She is able to feel frequently bilaterally.

(PageID.43.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a secretary. The ALJ determined that this work did not require the performance of work-related activities that were precluded by Plaintiff's RFC. (PageID.46.) Having made his determination at step four, the ALJ completed the analysis and entered a finding that Plaintiff had not been under a ...


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