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Spohn 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). Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's decision denying his 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 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.


         Plaintiff was fifty-one years of age on the date of the ALJ's decision. (PageID.73, 86, 101.) He obtained a GED, and was previously employed as an industrial truck driver, concrete quality controller, window installer, and concrete foreman. (PageID.44, 63-64.) Plaintiff applied for benefits on September 25, 2013, alleging disability beginning June 1, 2009, due to degenerated discs in the cervical region, chronic pain, damage to left ulnar nerve, degenerative disc disease, chronic migraines, and carpal tunnel syndrome. (PageID.73-74, 86-87, 205-235.) Plaintiff's applications were denied on March 5, 2014, and Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.128-152.) On February 5, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with his counsel before ALJ Christopher L. Dillon for an administrative hearing at which time Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) both testified. (PageID.38-71.) On May 20, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable written decision that concluded Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.101-124.) 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.23-28.) Plaintiff subsequently 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), 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 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 Dillon 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 since June 1, 2009, the alleged disability onset date. (PageID.106-107.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of: (1) cervical and lumbar spine disorder; (2) residuals of right shoulder disorder; (3) carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS); (4) bilateral knee disorder; (5) obesity; (6) affective disorder; and (7) an anxiety-related disorder. (PageID.107-108.) 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.108-111.) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:

for work that involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighting up to 10 pounds; pushing or pulling similar amounts; standing and/or walking for a total of no more than 2 hours per work day; sitting for a total of 6 hours; no climbing of ropes/ladders/scaffolding; no more than occasional ability to perform all other postural activity; no foot pedal operation; no more than frequent reaching with the dominant right upper extremity, but no reaching above shoulder level with either upper extremity; no more than frequent handling and fingering; no more than frequent interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the public; and no more than simple, routine, repetitive tasks.

(PageID.111.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ made no finding regarding Plaintiff's past relevant work. (PageID.117.) Accordingly the ALJ proceeded to the fifth step and questioned the VE to determine whether a significant number of jobs exist in the economy that Plaintiff could perform given his limitations. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform other light, unskilled, work as a final inspector (450, 000 national positions), final assembler (395, 000 national positions) and as a sorter (400, 000 national positions). (PageID.65-67.) 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.118.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from June 1, 2009, the alleged disability onset date, through May 20, ...

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