United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Northern Division
REBECCA S. RICKLEY, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,
J. JONKER CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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) 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.
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).
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.
was forty-one years of age on the date of the ALJ's
decision. (PageID.128, 153.) She obtained a GED and was
previously employed as a waitress. (PageID.153, 171-172.)
Plaintiff applied for DIB on May 30, 2013, and SSI on June
13, 2013. In both applications, Plaintiff alleged disability
beginning September 15, 2012, due to a mental illness, severe
depression, schizophrenia, and chronic pain in her hips and
pelvis. (PageID.181, 241-252.) These applications were denied
on October 8, 2013, and Plaintiff subsequently requested a
hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.194-198.) On March 25, 2015,
Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ Brent C.
Bedwell for an administrative hearing at which time Plaintiff
and a vocational expert (VE) both testified.
(PageID.147-179.) On May 12, 2015, the ALJ issued an
unfavorable written decision that concluded Plaintiff was not
disabled. (PageID.128-142.) On April 20, 2016, the Appeals
Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it
the Commissioner's final decision in the matter.
(PageID.29-34.) Thereafter, Plaintiff initiated this action
under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
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 the claimant's residual
functional capacity (RFC). See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1545, 416.945.
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.
Bedwell 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.133.) At step two, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of bipolar
disorder, mood disorder, depression, and anxiety.
(PageID.134.) At step three, 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
found in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1.
(PageID.134-136.) At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff
retained the RFC based on all the impairments:
to perform work at all exertional levels but with the
following nonexertional limitations: she can only perform
unskilled work; she is limited to jobs having only occasional
decision making and changes in work setting; she will be off
task up to ten percent of the workday, in addition to
regularly scheduled breaks; and she can have no more than
occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors as well
as no interaction with the public
(PageID.136.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her
past relevant work. (PageID.140.) 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: hand packager (165, 000
national positions) and laundry worker (377, 000 national
positions). (PageID.172-177.) 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.141.)
the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from
September 15, 2012, the alleged disability onset date,
through May 12, 2015, the date of decision. (PageID.142.)
The ALJ's Evaluation of Dr. David Meeker, D.O.'s
support of her application for benefits, Plaintiff submitted
three opinions from Dr. David Meeker, her treating physician.
The ALJ examined the three opinions, but found they were
entitled to only little weight. In her first claim of error,
Plaintiff argues the ALJ's decision to assign only little
weight to the opinions constitutes reversible error. The
Dr. Meeker's Opinions and the ALJ's
Meeker authored three opinions all finding Plaintiff was
restricted to an extent far greater than as ultimately
recognized by the ALJ. In an October 14, 2013, treatment note
for example, Dr. Meeker noted that Plaintiff had applied for
social security disability benefits and wrote that “I
do believe she does, again, suffer from a severe and chronic
mental illness, which would preclude her from maintaining
self reliable employment. While many patients with
significant illness can obtain a job, the question is can
they maintain a job; I believe she would have great
difficulty in both.” (PageID.383.) Similarly, on
January 13, 2015, Dr. Meeker filled out a one page worksheet
indicating that Plaintiff was totally disabled. Dr. Meeker
noted that Plaintiff's disability was due to her severe
chronic mental illness and a schizoaffective disorder.
Meeker's most extensive remarks appear in a completed
October 28, 2013, psychiatric/psychological impairment
questionnaire. On the worksheet, Dr. Meeker wrote that he had
first treated Plaintiff on June 10, 2013, and had been seeing
her every three to four weeks thereafter. (PageID.391.) He
had diagnosed her with a bipolar affective disorder Type I,
the most recent episode being depressed with psychotic
features. Plaintiff's current GAF score was thirty, and
her lowest GAF score over the last year had been
twenty-five. He assigned Plaintiff a
“guarded” prognosis. (PageID.391.) Based on his
clinical interviews with Plaintiff, Dr. Meeker identified
several positive findings, including poor memory; oddities of
thought, perception, speech or behavior; personality changes;
mood disturbances; blunt, flat or inappropriate affect;
delusions or hallucinations; pervasive loss of interests;
paranoia or inappropriate suspiciousness; and difficulty
thinking or concentrating. (PageID.392.) He noted that
Plaintiff required hospitalization or emergency room