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Taylor v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 10, 2017



          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) 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.


         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.


         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff's 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. 1990).


         Treatment 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[1] performed in December 2006 and January 2008, were both negative. (PageID.413, 417).

         On 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.” (PageID.465).

         X-rays 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).

         Treatment 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).

         On 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.” (PageID.877).

         Treatment 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.” (PageID.1215-16).


         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).[2] 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: (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).

         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 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 ...

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