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Hancock v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 3, 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 fifty-four years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.35, 84.) She has a high school education, and was previously employed as a custodian. (PageID.56, 79.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on February 12, 2014, alleging disability beginning May 31, 2013, due to bilateral wrist injuries, an injury to her left shoulder, a torn rotator cuff, and lower back to right leg pain. (PageID.84. 150-156.) These applications were denied on June 26, 2014, and Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.100-105.) On July 8, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Thomas L. Walters for an administrative hearing at which time both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (PageID.52-82.) On July 22, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable written decision that concluded Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.35-51.) On June 14, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.27-32.) Thereafter, Plaintiff 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 Walters determined Plaintiff's 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.40.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of left wrist epicondylitis, left shoulder tendonitis, degenerative disc disease, and carpal tunnel syndrome. (PageID.40.) 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.42.) At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

to perform light work as defined in 20 CF 404.1567(b) except she cannot reach or lift overhead; can occasionally bend, turn, crouch, stoop, climb, crawl, and kneel; can occasionally grip and grasp; can frequently finger and handle; and must avoid heights or moving machinery

(PageID.42.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.46-47.) 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: interviewer (100, 000 national positions), usher (169, 000 national positions), and driver (155, 000 national positions). (PageID.79-81.) 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.48.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from May 31, 2013, the alleged disability onset date, through July 22, 2015, the date of decision. (PageID.48.)


         1. Plaintiff's RFC

         A claimant's RFC represents the “most [a claimant] can still do despite [the claimant's] limitations.” Sullivan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 595 F. App'x 502, 505 (6th Cir. 2014); see also SSR 96-8P, 1996 WL 374184 at *1 (S.S.A., July 2, 1996) (stating that a claimant's RFC represents her ability to perform “work-related physical and mental activities in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis, ” defined as “8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule”). Plaintiff argues that her RFC is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ applied the wrong standard of disability, failed to properly consider her obesity on her ability to work, and further failed to consider her medication side effects. None of these arguments merit relief.

         A. Disability Standard

         Plaintiff claims that the ALJ imposed too high a bar on Plaintiff's claims when he said that portions of the record were not consistent with “an individual who is completely unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity.” (PageID.45-46.) Plaintiff misconstrues the ALJ's decision.

         Plaintiff's argument here is nebulous. It is not clear whether Plaintiff claims the ALJ applied the wrong standard of disability or if she argues the ALJ should have adopted an RFC for sedentary, rather than light, work and found her disabled under the medical-vocational guidelines. If Plaintiff is claiming the latter, as the Commissioner appears to believe, the argument is entirely undeveloped. Indeed, Plaintiff appears to say the argument is “irrelevant.” (PageID.416.) Accordingly, the Court will review the claim in the argument's headline of whether the ALJ applied the correct standard of disability.

         In both instances where the ALJ used the complained of language, the ALJ was obviously commenting on Plaintiff's own assertion that she was completely unable to work. In doing so, the ALJ was not determining whether Plaintiff was disabled under the Social Security Act. To the contrary, the ALJ's decision clearly followed the well-worn five step sequential process for evaluating disability claims. After determining that Plaintiff did not meet or equal any listed impairment, the ALJ moved on to the fourth step and determined Plaintiff's RFC. (PageID.42.) Then, at step five, the ALJ relied on the VE's testimony which provided a significant number of jobs in response to a hypothetical incorporating the limitations reflected in the RFC. (PageID.47.) “The ALJ's nondisability finding was therefore properly based on an RFC determination rather than a finding that [Plaintiff] merely was not [‘completely unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity.']” Smith v. Colvin, No. 15-CV-02563-RBJ, 2016 WL 7029835, at *6 (D. Colo. Dec. 2, 2016). Therefore, the Court concludes the ALJ applied the correct disability standard.

         B. ...

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