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Carter v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Northern Division

June 12, 2017

KELLY CARTER, Plaintiff,



         A. Introduction and Procedural History

         This is an action for judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff Kelly Carter's claim for disability benefits under the Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") program of Title II, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq, and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. (Doc. 1; Tr. 1-3). The case is before the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to the parties' consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), E.D. Mich. LR 72.1(b)(3), and by Notice of Reference. (Docs. 4, 10, 12). The matter is currently before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 20, 24).

         Carter was thirty-six years old as of July 20, 2015, the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 20, 170). Her applications for benefits were initially denied on May 6, 2014. (Tr. 94-95). Carter requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which took place before ALJ Patrick J. MacLean on May 15, 2015. (Tr. 25-65). Carter, represented by attorney Samantha Ball, testified, as did vocational expert ("VE") Pauline McEachin. (Id.). On July 20, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision in which he found Carter not disabled. (Tr. 9-20). On July 5, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review. (Tr. 1-4). Carter filed for judicial review of that final decision on September 6, 2016. (Doc. 1).

         B. Standard of Review

         The district court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The district court's review is restricted solely to determining whether the "Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record." Sullivan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 595 F.App'x 502, 506 (6th Cir. 2014) (internal citations omitted). Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007) (internal quotations omitted).

         The Court must examine the administrative record as a whole, and may consider any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the ALJ. See Walker v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 884 F.2d 241, 245 (6th Cir. 1989). The Court will not "try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor decide questions of credibility." Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, "it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion." Id. at 286 (internal citations omitted).

         C. Framework for Disability Determinations

         Under the Act, "DIB and SSI are available only for those who have a 'disability.'" Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). "Disability" means the inability

to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than [twelve] months.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (DIB); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a) (SSI). The Commissioner's regulations provide that disability is to be determined through the application of a five-step sequential analysis:

Step One: If the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Two: If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments that "significantly limits . . . physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, " benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Three: If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, has a severe impairment that is expected to last for at least twelve months, and the severe impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the regulations, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled regardless of age, education or work experience.
Step Four: If the claimant is able to perform his or her past relevant work, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Five: Even if the claimant is unable to perform his or her past relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, in view of his or her age, education, and work experience, benefits are denied.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. See also Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001). "Through step four, the claimant bears the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by [his or] her impairments and the fact that she is precluded from performing [his or] her past relevant work." Jones v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec, 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). The burden transfers to the Commissioner if the analysis reaches the fifth step without a finding that the claimant is not disabled. Combs v. Comm'r of Soc Sec, 459 F.3d 640, 643 (6th Cir. 2006). At the fifth step, the Commissioner is required to show that "other jobs in significant numbers exist in the national economy that [the claimant] could perform given [his or] her RFC [residual functional capacity] and considering relevant vocational factors." Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), (g)).

         D. ALJ Findings

         Following the five-step sequential analysis, the ALJ found Carter not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 20). The ALJ found at Step One that Carter had not engaged in substantial gainful activity following the alleged onset date, May 1, 2013. (Tr. 11). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Carter had the following severe impairments: "status/post excision of melanomas from back; degenerative changes of the lumbar spine; facet arthritis T10-T11; myelopathy of lumbar spine; fibromyalgia; obesity; and depression." (Tr. 11-12). At Step Three, the ALJ found that Carter's combination of impairments did not meet or equal one of the listed impairments. (Tr. 12-13). The ALJ then found that Carter had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work, with additional limitations as follows:

[C]an never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds but can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to moving machinery and unprotected heights. The claimant can perform work that is limited to simple routine and repetitive tasks.

(Tr. 13-19). At Step Four, the ALJ found that Carter was unable to return to her past relevant work. (Tr. 19). At Step Five, the ALJ found that Carter could still perform jobs which exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and was thus not disabled. (Tr. 19-20).

         E. Administrative Record

         1. Medical Evidence

         The Court has thoroughly reviewed Carter's medical record. In lieu of summarizing her medical history here, the Court will make references and provide citations to the record as necessary in its discussion of the parties' arguments.

         2. Application Reports and Administrative Hearing

         a. Carter's Function Report

         Carter completed a function report on March 20, 2014. (Tr. 249-56). She wrote that she was in pain "every day, " had stiff joints, numbness in her extremities, increased pain with activity, and pain-induced migraines. (Tr. 249). Following a "full day of activity, " she found herself bedridden for two to three days, and required "help to get around." (Id.). She rose each morning around five to assist her sons in getting to school. (Tr. 250). When possible, she would prepare dinner and clean up the house, but "lately [she was] in bed alot [sic] due to fatigue." (Id.). She assisted her sons to complete their homework. (Id.). She ensured that her sons were properly clothed and had something to eat. (Id.). Carter owned a dog, but her care for the pet was limited to letting the dog outside. (Id.). She sometimes relied on a close friend for assistance when she was unable to walk. (Id.).

         Carter's sleep was interrupted by crying due to pain which radiated from her hips down through her feet. (Tr. 250). In terms of personal care, Carter wrote that she has difficulty bending to put on clothing, getting in and out of the shower, did not style her hair due to difficulty holding a hair drier, had trouble stooping to shave, required help cooking on occasion, had trouble getting of the toilet, had trouble going down stairs, and had difficulty carrying laundry. (Id.).

         When suffering from migraines, Carter relied on her friend to provide migraine medicine; her migraines were so severe that she was reluctant to move. (Tr. 251). She cooked two or three days every week. (Id.). She washed laundry and dishes, but did "a little bit at a time;" she did not perform any outdoor chores. (Id.). She had trouble vacuuming and cleaning floors. (Id.). Performing indoor chores like laundry and washing dishes took "all day." (Id.). She had trouble finishing tasks, and could not "carry anything over 10 lbs." (Id.). Following two hours of cleaning house, Carter would be bedridden for two to three days. (Tr. 252).

         Carter went outside only rarely because "it is cold, " thus her excursions were limited to visiting doctors and shopping in stores. (Tr. 252). Carter asserted that she was "told by two doctors not to drive, " because of numbness in her feet. (Id.). She shopped in stores weekly for food or other necessities; these trips took "all day." (Id.). She had no difficulty handling money. (Id.).

         Carter asserted that her hobbies included eating lunch with a friend once every few months, and watching television when not suffering from a headache. (Tr. 253). She also complained that she could not sit still for more than thirty-five minutes. (Id.). She found it difficult to enjoy herself "much anymore." (Id.). She spent time with her children and her friend once or twice weekly, talking or watching movies. (Tr. 253). Once per week she rode a motorized scooter to "just look around, " apparently outdoors. (Id.). Carter's relationship with her mother was strained due to her failure to pay back borrowed funds. (Tr. 254).

         Carter checked boxes indicating that she had difficulty performing all exertional and postural activities, and also had difficulty completing tasks, remembering things, concentrating, understanding, and getting along with others. (Tr. 254). She wrote that she could not lift more than ten pounds, and "even that is too much at times." (Id.). She was unable to squat; this prevented her from picking up dropped objects or using a public restroom. (Id.). She was unable to "stand long" because of foot numbness; she also experienced back pain and dizziness. (Id.). Carter could walk "not long, " had trouble sitting for long periods because of tailbone numbness, and was unable to rise from a kneeling position. (Id.). She also found it difficult to climb stairs. (Id.). She could walk one block at a slow pace, and could continue walking after a ten minute rest. (Id.). She could pay attention for thirty minutes. (Id.).

         When attempting to follow written instructions, she had to "read it over and over." (Tr. 254). As to spoken instructions, she often required repetition "depending on what it is." (Id.). Carter got along with authority figures without issue, handled stress and changes in routine "OK, " but got "nervous and jump[ed] at little things." (Tr. 255). She walked with a cane when she "feels really ran [sic] down and [her] feet are numb and joints hurt." (Id.). She took a variety of medications which caused lightheadedness, nausea, constipation, drowsiness, and vomiting. (Tr. 256). She had difficulty concentrating, felt frustration which impeded her ability to complete tasks, and sometimes cause frustration in others because she was no longer able to live a full life. (Id.).

         b. Third-Party Function Report

         Carter's friend and housemate Morgan Wrobel completed a thirty-party function report on March 20, 2014, which generally confirmed Carter's own report. (Tr. 241-48). More particularly, he wrote that Carter was bedridden "a few days a week" due to extreme pain which prevented her from sitting or standing. (Tr. 241). Even light housework caused pain. (Tr. 242). He helped Carter in taking care of her children, performing housework, and preparing meals. (Id.). When she was in too much pain to complete chores around the house, Wrobel or Carter's children would take over. (Tr. 243). Wrobel asserted that when Carter shopped in stores, she made use of an electric scooter. (Id.).

         c. Carter's Testimony at the ...

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