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Sanderson v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 25, 2017

IVY SANDERSON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          ELLEN S. CARMODY, United States Magistrate Judge

         This is an action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act. The parties have agreed to proceed in this Court for all further proceedings, including an order of final judgment. (ECF No. 12.)

         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 Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision. (PageID.90, 103.) She obtained two years of college education, and was previously employed as a claim examiner in healthcare, as a customer service representative in healthcare, doing work in hospital admissions and patient registration, as a medical secretary, and as a benefits clerk. (PageID.82-84, 227.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on November 7, 2013, alleging disability beginning August 1, 2013, due to pain while sitting and standing, chronic back pain due to herniated discs, post laminectomy syndrome, degenerative disc disease, depression, bipolar affective disorder, arthritis, panic attacks, diabetes, anxiety attacks, insomnia, and hepatitis. (PageID.90-91, 198-99.) Plaintiff's application was denied on January 21, 2014, after which time she requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.125-128, 132-133.) Shortly thereafter, on February 24, 2014, Plaintiff amended her onset date to June 21, 2012. (PageID.200.) On March 2, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Susan Torres for an administrative hearing with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (PageID.65-88.) In a written decision dated April 9, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.103-123.) On January 6, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.41-44.) 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).[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.

         The burden of establishing the right to benefits rests squarely on Plaintiff's shoulders, and she can satisfy her burden by demonstrating that her impairments are so severe that she is unable to perform her previous work and cannot, considering her age, education, and work experience, perform any other substantial gainful employment existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); Cohen. 964 F.2d at 528. While the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five, Plaintiff bears the burden of proof through step four of the procedure, the point at which her RFC is determined. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997) (noting that the ALJ determines RFC at step four, at which point the claimant bears the burden of proof).

         ALJ Torres determined 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 June 21, 2012, the amended alleged onset date. (PageID.108.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of lumbar disc disease status post multiple surgeries, obesity, diabetes mellitus, affective disorder, and anxiety disorder. (PageID.108-109.) 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 any listing in the Listing of Impairments. (PageID.109-111.) 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) with the following additional limitations: the claimant is limited to no more than occasional climbing of ramps and stairs. She must never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, vibration, and hazards such as heights and moving machinery. She can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions.

(PageID.111.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.117.) 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 order clerk in food and beverage (550, 000 national positions), telephone quotation clerk (850, 000 national positions), and as a charge account clerk (600, 000 national positions). (PageID.84-87.) Based on this record, the ALJ ...


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