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Rickley v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 25, 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) 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.


         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 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.[1] (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).


         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 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 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 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.)

         Accordingly, 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.)


         1. The ALJ's Evaluation of Dr. David Meeker, D.O.'s Opinion.

         In 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 Court agrees.

         A. Dr. Meeker's Opinions and the ALJ's Assessment

         Dr. 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. (PageID.468.)

         Dr. 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.[3] 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 treatment ...

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