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Lafountain v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 13, 2017

ROXANNE LAFOUNTAIN, 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 subsequently agreed to proceed in this Court for all further proceedings, including an order of final judgment. (ECF No. 11). 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. For the reasons articulated herein, the Commissioner's decision is vacated and this matter remanded for further factual findings pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court's jurisdiction is confined to a review of the Commissioner's decision and of the record made in the administrative hearing process. See Willbanks v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 847 F.2d 301, 303 (6th Cir. 1988). 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 and Human Services, 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 Dep't of Health and Human Services, 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 and Human Services, 735 F.2d 962, 963 (6th Cir. 1984).

         As has been widely recognized, 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 50 years of age on her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.190). She possesses a ninth-grade education and worked previously as a furniture assembler and panel maker. (PageID.57, 239). Plaintiff applied for benefits on January 15, 2014, alleging that she had been disabled since March 15, 2013, due to a back injury, nerve damage, and lower back arthritis. (PageID.190-92, 238). Plaintiff's application was denied, after which time she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (PageID.63-188). On May 5, 2015, Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Richard Guida with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (PageID.43-61). In a written decision dated May 20, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.78-84). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, r e n d e r i n g i t t h e C o m m i s s i o n e r ' s f i n a l d e c i s i o n i n t h e m a t t e r . (PageID.28-32). Plaintiff subsequently initiated this pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision.

         ANALYSIS OF THE 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 her residual functional capacity. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945.

         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 of the sequential evaluation process, Plaintiff bears the burden of proof through step four of the procedure, the point at which her residual functioning capacity (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) (ALJ determines RFC at step four, at which point claimant bears the burden of proof).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffers from degenerative disc disease, a severe impairment that whether considered alone or in combination with other impairments, failed to satisfy the requirements of any impairment identified in the Listing of Impairments detailed in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (PageID.80-81). With respect to Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the ability to perform light work subject to the following limitations: (1) she can frequently balance and crawl; and (2) she can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and climb ramps and stairs. (PageID.81). Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a panel maker. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits.

         I. The ALJ's Credibility Assessment is not Supported by Substantial Evidence

         At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff testified that she was far more limited than the ALJ determined in his RFC assessment. (PageID.45-57). Plaintiff also submitted a function report that likewise indicated that she was far more limited than the ALJ recognized. (PageID.246-53). The ALJ, however, found Plaintiff to be “not entirely credible.” (PageID.81). Plaintiff argues that she is entitled to relief because the ALJ's ...


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