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Snowden v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 20, 2017

JOHN RICHARD SNOWDEN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant,

          OPINION

          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) under Title II 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. 9.)

         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.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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.

         PROCEDURAL POSTURE

         This is the second time Plaintiff's application has reached this level of review. Plaintiff's application for benefits was previously considered by Magistrate Judge Hugh Brenneman, Jr. who, in a decision dated March 19, 2014, summarized the procedural history of this case to that point as follows:

Plaintiff was born on February 9, 1959. He alleged a disability onset date of February 9, 2003. Plaintiff graduated from high school, attended about two years of college and had additional vocational training in working with sheet metal. He had previous employment as a salesman, floor layer and factory worker. Plaintiff identified his disabling conditions as depression, multiple sclerosis and restrictive breathing disease. The administrative law judge (ALJ) reviewed plaintiff's claim de novo and entered a written decision denying benefits on February 25, 2011. This decision, which was later approved by the Appeals Council, has become the final decision of the Commissioner and is now before the Court for review.

(Snowden v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 1:12-cv-1091 ECF No. 19, PageID.599-600) (internal citations and footnotes omitted). Magistrate Judge Brenneman further noted that Plaintiff had been found disabled for purposes of a separate Title XVI application in September 2009, approximately nine months after his date last insured. (Id.) Judge Brenneman then proceeded to conclude that the Commissioner's decision was not supported by substantial evidence, remanded the case, and directed the Commissioner to “evaluate Dr. Sullivan's January 25, 2011 report to determine if plaintiff suffered from multiple sclerosis prior to his date last insured of December 31, 2007 and the extent of his symptoms at that time. In addition, the Commissioner should re-evaluate the testimony of Rev. Meredith and the vocational evidence in light of Dr. Sullivan's opinion.” (Snowden v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 1:12-cv-1091 ECF No. 19, PageID.610-611.)

         On May 31, 2014, consistent with Judge Brenneman's order, the Appeals Council vacated the prior administrative decision and remanded the case to ALJ Prothro for further action. (PageID.668-670.) On October 6, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with his counsel before ALJ Prothro for an administrative hearing at which time Plaintiff, a medical expert, Rev. Meredith (an acquaintance of Plaintiff), and a vocational expert (VE) all testified. (PageID.573-630.) In a written decision, dated October 17, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.551-572.) On October 2, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, making it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.543.) Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         As alluded to above, Plaintiff's insured status expired on December 31, 2007. (PageID.555.) To be eligible for DIB under Title II of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish that he became disabled prior to the expiration of his insured status. See 42 U.S.C. § 423; Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1182 (6th Cir. 1990).

         ALJ'S DECISION

         The social security regulations articulate a five-step sequential process for evaluating disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a-f).[1] 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). 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.

         The burden of establishing the right to benefits rests squarely on Plaintiff's shoulders, and he can satisfy his burden by demonstrating that his impairments are so severe that he is unable to perform his previous work and cannot, considering his 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, Plaintiff bears the burden of proof through step four of the procedure, the point at which his RFC is determined. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 ...


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