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Dukes v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 8, 2017

RANDY M. DUKES, 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 his 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

         This is the second time Plaintiff's application has reached this level of review. Plaintiff's DIB application was previously considered by Magistrate Judge Hugh Brenneman, Jr. In a decision dated September 22, 2014, Judge Brenneman summarized the procedural history of this case to that point as follows:

Plaintiff was born on June 3, 1966. He alleged a disability onset date of February 15, 2009. Plaintiff had four or more years of college, and had special job training at a police academy and at truck driving school. He had previous employment as a police officer, public school security officer and truck driver. Plaintiff identified his disabling conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, left knee acl repair, bone spurs, meniscus damage and left hip strain. The administrative law judge (ALJ) reviewed plaintiff's claim de novo and entered a written decision denying benefits on October 1, 2011. This decision, which was later approved by the Appeals Council, has become the final decision of the Commissioner and is now before the Court for review.

Dukes v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 1:13-cv-623 (W.D. Mich. Sept. 22, 2014) (ECF No. 19, PageID.962) (internal citations and footnotes omitted). Upon review, Judge Brenneman concluded that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, Judge Brenneman observed that the ALJ appeared to have used boilerplate language to discount the treating source opinions by Dr. Hakima Aqel, M.D., and further found the ALJ had failed to provide good reasons for assigning the opinions less than controlling weight. Judge Breneman further noted that it was unclear whether the ALJ had considered an opinion from Dr. Darryl P. Plunkett, Ph.D, as one from a treating source or as one from merely an examining source. Accordingly, the judge reversed and remanded the decision of the Commissioner in order to “(1) determine whether Dr. Plunkett's opinion is that of a treater or an examiner, and then evaluate the opinion accordingly, and (2) re-evaluate Dr. Aqel's mental and physical RFC assessments.” Id. at PageID.971.

         On December 5, 2014, pursuant to Judge Brenneman's decision, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ. (PageID.1132-1133.) On March 19, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with his counsel before ALJ Donna Grit for an administrative hearing at which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. (PageID.991-1021.) Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable written decision, dated July 17, 2015, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.936-988.) On May 9, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.918-925.)

         Plaintiff's insured status expired on March 31, 2015. (PageID.940.) To be eligible for DIB under Title II of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish that he became disabled prior to the expiration of his insured status. See 42 U.S.C. § 423; Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1182 (6th Cir. 1990).

         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 his impairments and that he 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 Grit determined that Plaintiff's claim failed at the fifth step of the evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged disability onset date of February 15, 2009, through his date last insured of March 31, 2015. (PageID.942.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of: (1) left knee pain status-post surgical repair; (2) degenerative changes of the right shoulder; (3) a right heel spur; (4) obesity; (5) post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); (6) depression; (7) and a history of substance abuse. (PageID.942.) 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.944-948.) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments through his date last insured:

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) such that he is able to lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. He is able to push and/or pull up to ten pounds occasionally. He is able to stand and/or walk two hours in an eight-hour workday and sit for up to six hours of an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. He requires the option to alternate between sitting and standing at will. He may occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He may occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He must avoid unprotected heights and dangerous machinery as well as walking on uneven surfaces. H e must not perform overhead work[.] He is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks ...

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