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Cantu v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 23, 2017

BRENDA S. CANTU, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          HONORABLE PAUL L. MALONEY, 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) denying Plaintiff's 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 Commissioner has found that Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act.

         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 evidence 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 thirty-nine years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.43, 72.) She completed high school and has worked in the past as a unit coordinator and phlebotomist. (PageID.94-278.) Plaintiff has previously applied for benefits in 2010. That application resulted in an unfavorable decision by an ALJ on July 13, 2012. It does not appear that Plaintiff further pursued that application. (PageID.102-122.) Instead, Plaintiff filed a new application for DIB and SSI on September 4, 2013, alleging disability due to a back injury, back surgery with hardware placement, Type I diabetes, depression, anxiety, and chronic back pain. (PageID.123-124, 145-146, 238-250.) These applications were denied on January 15, 2014, after which time Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.173-193.) On April 9, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Nicholas Ohanesian for an administrative hearing at which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.65-100.) On May 8, 2015, the ALJ issued his written decision, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.43-64.) On April 21, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.31-35.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         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), 416.920(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), 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.

         In the decision, the ALJ first discussed Plaintiff's prior application for benefits. Noting that Plaintiff did not request that the prior application be reopened, the ALJ declined to reopen that application and concluded that the June 13, 2012, decision was final and binding. As such, despite Plaintiff's earlier alleged onset date, the ALJ stated that the issue of disability would be considered beginning July 14, 2012, the day after the prior decision. (PageID.46.)

         Turning to the sequential analysis, at step one the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.49.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of: (1) degenerative disc disease of the thoracic spine, status post fusion; (2) diabetes mellitus; (3) carpal tunnel syndrome; and (4) affective disorder (adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depression). (PageID.49.) At step three, 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 found in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. (PageID.49-52.) At step four, 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) with need to change position every half hour for one to two minutes; is capable of occasionally climbing ramps and stairs and never climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; be able to occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl; is limited to frequent handling, fingering and feeling bilaterally; limited to concentrated exposure to vibration; limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks; working in a small familiar group. I am defining a small familiar group as a group of ten employees or less.:

(PageID.52.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.57-58.) 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 work in the following representative jobs: machine tender (7, 800 regional positions), line attendant (4, 800 regional positions), and packager (6, 300 regional positions.) (PageID.95-97.)

         Based on this record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of making a successful adjustment to work that exists in ...


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