United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division
S. CARMODY United States Magistrate Judge.
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) and
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of
the Social Security Act. The parties have agreed to proceed
in this Court for all further proceedings, including an order
of final judgment. (ECF No. 14). 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 stated below, the Court concludes
that the Commissioner's decision is supported by
substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Commissioner's
decision is affirmed.
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).
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).
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.
was 39 years of age on her alleged disability onset date.
(PageID.225). She successfully completed college and last
worked as a secretary and dental assistant. (PageID.61, 154).
Plaintiff applied for benefits on November 21, 2013, alleging
that she had been disabled since November 4, 2007, due to
lupus, ADHD, C3-C4 fusion, closed head injury, PTSD, and
memory issues. (PageID.225-34, 313). Plaintiff's
application was denied, after which time she requested a
hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
(PageID.91-222). On August 26, 2014, Plaintiff appeared
before ALJ Richard Guida with testimony being offered by
Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (PageID.51-89). In a
written decision dated February 11, 2015, the ALJ determined
that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.140-56). The Appeals
Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, rendering
it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter.
(PageID.41-43). Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review
of the ALJ's decision.
insured status expired on March 31, 2009. (PageID.142).
Accordingly, to be eligible for Disability Insurance Benefits
under Title II of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must
establish that she became disabled prior to the expiration of
her insured status. See 42 U.S.C. § 423;
Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1182 (6th Cir.
notes dated October 11, 2006, indicate that in light of
conflicting laboratory test results there existed a
“question” whether Plaintiff was properly
diagnosed with lupus. (PageID.418). The results of an
anti-nuclear antibodies (ANA) tests performed in December 2006
and January 2008, were both negative. (PageID.413, 417).
November 4, 2007, Plaintiff was riding on a pontoon boat when
she “dove into the shallow water. . .hitting her head
on the bottom.” (PageID.478). Plaintiff suffered a
“mild brain injury” as well as a fracture at
¶ 4-5 which necessitated fusion surgery. (PageID.471,
583, 585-86, 593-98). Treatment notes dated February 6, 2008,
indicate that Plaintiff was “doing very well”
with “very little pain.” (PageID.646). Treatment
notes dated March 18, 2008, indicate that Plaintiff was
neurologically intact. (PageID480). Treatment notes dated
April 17, 2008, note “embellishment” by Plaintiff
“in multiple areas of functioning.” (PageID.471).
A May 6, 2008 examination revealed “no evidence of
traumatic brain injury in [Plaintiff's] case.”
of Plaintiff's cervical spine, taken on May 7, 2008,
revealed “no evidence of instability.”
(PageID.656). Plaintiff was doing “extremely
well” and was instructed that she “can return to
normal activity.” (PageID.645). The results of an
October 21, 2010 physical examination were unremarkable.
(PageID.693-94).On November 2, 2010, Plaintiff participated
in an MRI examination of her cervical spine the results of
which revealed “no acute abnormalities.”
(PageID.655). Treatment notes dated April 27, 2011, revealed
no evidence that Plaintiff was experiencing cognitive or
motor delay. (PageID.807).
notes dated August 3, 2012, reveal that Plaintiff was
employed as a substitute teacher during the 2011-2012 school
year. (PageID.986). Plaintiff's intellectual functioning
was characterized as “above average.”
(PageID.989). On December 11, 2012, Plaintiff participated in
an MRI examination of her cervical spine the results of which
revealed “moderate” disc degeneration at ¶
5-6, but was otherwise “normal” with no evidence
of spinal cord or nerve root compression. (PageID.842).
November 1, 2013, Plaintiff reported that she was
experiencing “a flareup of her lupus, ” but when
Plaintiff was asked “what symptoms she was having that
would suggest a flare up of lupus [Plaintiff] really could
not answer that question.” (PageID.877). The doctor
reported that Plaintiff “really has no symptoms that
would [at] all suggest anything to do with lupus.”
notes dated February 3, 2014, indicate that Plaintiff's
complaints are exaggerated and that she is instead
“qualified and capable in several areas.”
(PageID.1047-53). Treatment notes dated February 11, 2014,
indicate that Plaintiff was instructed to exercise five days
weekly. (PageID.1019). The results of a May 15, 2014 ANA test
were “equivocally positive.” (PageID.1233). On
June 27, 2014, Plaintiff participated in a functional
capacity assessment at Mary Free Bed the results of which
were consistent with the ALJ's RFC assessment.
(PageID.1082-85). The results of a July 17, 2014 physical
examination were unremarkable and revealed that
Plaintiff's spine “looks pretty good.”
OF THE ALJ'S DECISION
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). 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.
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).
determined that Plaintiff suffers from: (1) degenerative disc
disease; (2) lupus; (3) anxiety disorder; (4) attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); (5) personality
disorder; (6) post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); and (7)
major depressive disorder, severe impairments 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.143-48).
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
only occasionally crawl, and climb ladders, ropes, and
scaffolds; (2) she is limited to unskilled work with simple,
routine, and repetitive tasks, involving only simple,
work-related decisions, with few, if any, work place ...