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Fehl v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 21, 2017

JESSICA FEHL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          ROBERT J. JONKER CHIEF 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) denying Plaintiffs claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI 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.

         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 forty-one years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.33, 99-100, 112-113.) She has a high school education, and was previously employed as a retail sales clerk and as a survey worker. (PageID.62, 69-70.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on September 18, 2013, alleging disability beginning July 14, 2012, due to psychophysiological insomnia, depression, hypertension, a learning disability, difficulty remembering tasks and directions, short and long term memory loss due to a head injury, obesity, asthma, female stress incontinence, and a "cystocele midline." (PageID.99-100, 112-113, 189-190.) These applications were denied on February 24, 2014, and Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PagelD. 128-140.) On February 19, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ James F. Prothro for an administrative hearing at which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PagelD.55-97.) On June 5, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable written decision that concluded Plaintiff was not disabled. (PagelD.33-54.) On May 23, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.25-28.) 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), 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 the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945.

         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 Prothro determined Plaintiffs claim failed at step five. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.38.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of obesity, fibromyalgia, borderline intellectual functioning [with a verbal IQ of 78, a performance IQ of 77, and a full scale IQ of 82], insomnia, depression, and an anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified. (PageID.39.) 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.39-42.) At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform a range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) of the Regulations, and she is further limited to:
- performing simple, routine tasks;
- with occasional contact with the ...

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