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Kornoelje-Cogswell v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 1, 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) denying Plaintiff's 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 Commissioner has found that Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act.


         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.


         Plaintiff was thirty-eight years of age as of her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.100-101.) She previously obtained a GED and has been employed as a quality monitor and as a hand packer. (PageID.90-91, 212.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on May 29, 2014, alleging disability beginning May 6, 2014, due to s/p bilateral hip replacement causing pain, numbness, and stiffness; bulging discs and mild scoliosis causing lower back pain; shoulder arthritis causing shoulder pain and burning; pain leading to poor sleep and poor memory; a thyroid disorder; a learning disorder; and migraines. (PageID.100-101, 192-195.) Plaintiff's application was denied on November 3, 2014, after which time Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.116-126.) On March 11, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ David S. Pang for an administrative hearing at which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.66-98.) On June 25, 2015, the ALJ issued his written decision which concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.48-65.) On May 7, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.30-35.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         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 Pang determined Plaintiff's claim failed at the fifth step. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.53.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of: (1) status post bilateral right and left hip replacement; (2) arthritis of the left hip; (3) shoulder arthrosis; (4) degenerative disc disease of the back; and (5) obesity. (PageID.53-55.) At step three, the ALJ concluded 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.55-56.) At step four, 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 the claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, balance. The claimant can never have unprotected heights and never can operate heavy machinery including cars. The claimant can only occasionally reach overhead bilaterally and can only operate foot controls bilaterally.

(PageID.56) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.60.) 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: order clerk (5, 000 national positions), assembler (8, 000 national positions), and telemarketer (48, 000 national positions). (PageID.91-96.) 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.61.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from May 6, 2014, the alleged disability onset date, through June 25, 2015, the date of decision. (PageID.61-62.)


         1.The ALJ Properly Evaluated the Opinion Evidence.

         The record contains several opinions from Dr. Thomas V. Bilisko, M.D., Plaintiff's treating physician. (PageID.334-339, 358-359, 366-367, 378, 382.) In these records, Dr. Bilisko recorded that Plaintiff was more limited than as the ALJ ultimately concluded. The ALJ, however, afforded “little weight” to Dr. Bilisko's opinions. (PageID.59.) Plaintiff argues that she is entitled to relief on the ground that the ALJ failed to articulate sufficient reasons for discounting the opinion of her treating physician and also failed to weigh the opinion pursuant to the factors found in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). She further argues that after rejecting the only physical RFC opinion in the record that was from an acceptable source, the ALJ impermissibly relied on a single decision maker opinion. The Court disagrees.

         By way of background, the treating physician doctrine recognizes that medical professionals who have a long history of caring for a claimant and her maladies generally possess significant insight into her medical condition. See Barker v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 789, 794 (6th Cir. 1994). An ALJ must, therefore, give controlling weight to the opinion of a treating source if: (1) the opinion is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques” and (2) the opinion “is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record.” Gayheart v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 710 F.3d 365, 375-76 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527).

         Such deference is appropriate, however, only where the particular opinion “is based upon sufficient medical data.” Miller v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 1991 WL 229979 at *2 (6th Cir., Nov. 7, 1991) (citing Shavers v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 839 F.2d 232, 235 n.1 (6th Cir. 1987)). The ALJ may reject the opinion of a treating physician where such is unsupported by the medical record, merely states a conclusion, or is contradicted by substantial medical evidence. See Cohen, 964 F.2d at 528; Miller, 1991 WL ...

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