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Monville v. Comissioner of Social Security

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

September 15, 2017

HEATHER N. MONVILLE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

         OPINION AND ORDER (1) ADOPTING MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S AUGUST 18, 2017 REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION [ECF NO. 17]; (2) DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [ECF NO. 10]; (3) GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [ECF NO. 14]; AND (4) AFFIRMING DEFENDANT'S DECISION DENYING PLAINTIFF SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS

          LINDA V. PARKER, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff filed a Title II application for disability insurance benefits on August 21, 2013, alleging that she became disabled on March 16, 2010. The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application for benefits initially on September 25, 2013. Upon Plaintiff's request, Administrative Law Judge Andrew G. Sloss (“ALJ Sloss”) conducted a de novo hearing on March 5, 2015. ALJ Sloss issued a decision on March 16, 2015, finding Plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and therefore not entitled to benefits. ALJ Sloss' decision became the final decision of the Social Security Commissioner (“Commissioner”) on May 20, 2016, when the Social Security Appeals Council denied review. Plaintiff initiated this lawsuit seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's unfavorable decision on June 15, 2016.

         Thereafter, both parties filed motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 10, 14.) The Court has referred this matter to Magistrate Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis for all pretrial proceedings, including a hearing and determination of all non-dispositive matters pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and/or a report and recommendation (“R&R”) on all dispositive matters pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). (ECF No. 13.) On August 18, 2017, Magistrate Judge Davis filed her R&R recommending that this Court deny Plaintiff's motion, grant the Commissioner's motion, and affirm the Commissioner's decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act. (ECF No. 17.) At the conclusion of the R&R, Magistrate Judge Davis advises the parties that they may object to and seek review of the R&R within fourteen days of service upon them. Plaintiff filed objections to the R&R on August 31, 2017. (ECF No. 18.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Social Security Act provides:

Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party . . . may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action . . . The court shall have the power to enter . . . a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing. The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . .

42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (emphasis added); see also Boyes v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 46 F.3d 510, 511-12 (6th Cir. 1994). Courts are to review the entire administrative record to determine whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, but may “not reconsider facts, re-weigh the evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.” Reynolds v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 424 F.App'x 411, 414 (6th Cir. 2011) (citing Youghiogheny & Ohio Coal Co. v. Webb, 49 F.3d 244, 246 (6th Cir. 1995)). “Substantial evidence is defined as ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.' ” Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 922-23 (6th Cir. 1990) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427 (1971)). The Commissioner's findings are not subject to reversal because substantial evidence exists in the record to support a different conclusion. McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006).

         If substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, a reviewing court generally must affirm. Studaway v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 815 F.2d 1074, 1076 (6th Cir. 1987). However, where the ALJ failed to follow the Social Security Act's procedural regulations, the ALJ's decision must be reversed even if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004).

         A court reviews de novo the parts of an R&R to which a party objects. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b); Thomas v. Halter, 131 F.Supp.2d 942, 944 (E.D. Mich. 2001). However, a reviewing court “is not required to articulate all the reasons it rejects a party's objections.” Id.

         ANALYSIS

         Under the authority of the Social Security Act, the Social Security Administration established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). If the agency determines that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at a step, it need not proceed further. Id. However, if the agency does not find that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at a step, it must proceed to the next step. Id. “The burden of proof is on the claimant through the first four steps . . . If the analysis reaches the fifth step without a finding that the claimant is not disabled, the burden transfers to the [Commissioner].” Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994); see also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

         In Plaintiff's case, the doctrine of res judicata constrained ALJ Sloss' application of the five-step sequential evaluation process because Plaintiff previously filed a claim for social security benefits for which she received a partially favorable decision in March 2010. See Drummond v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 126 F.3d 837, 842-43 (6th Cir. 1997) (holding that adjudicators must adopt the final decision by an ALJ or the Appeals Council on a prior claim in determining whether the claimant is disabled with respect to an unadjudicated period absent new and material evidence). In that 2010 decision, the Commissioner granted Plaintiff a closed period of disability from April 2, 2006 through February 2, 2008, finding that all of Plaintiff's impairments (i.e., nonunion fracture of shoulder/collar bone and depression) were nonsevere after she admittedly achieved medical improvement on the latter date. (A.R. at 114-121, ECF No. 7-3 at Pg ID 138-45.) ALJ Sloss was required to follow the prior 2010 decision unless Plaintiff demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that “her condition so worsened in comparison to her earlier condition that she was unable to perform substantial gainful activity.” Casey v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 987 F.2d 1230, 1232-33 (6th Cir. 1993).

         Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, ALJ Sloss first considered whether Plaintiff was currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b). ALJ Sloss concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant period-that is, from her alleged onset date of March 16, 2010 through her date last insured of March 31, 2011. (A.R. at 39, ECF No. 7-2 at Pg ID 62.) At the second step, ALJ Sloss considered whether Plaintiff had a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment during the relevant period that met the duration requirement of the regulations and significantly limited her ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) and (c). ALJ Sloss concluded that Plaintiff had the following impairments through the date last insured: neuropathy in the left shoulder, sacroiliitis, and depression. (A.R. at 40, ECF No. 7-2 at Pg ID 63.) However, ALJ Sloss concluded that Plaintiff did not present evidence to show that her impairments worsened since the 2010 disability decision to the point where they significantly limited her ability to do basic work activities by her date last insured. (Id.) ALJ Sloss therefore ...


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