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Cardona v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 21, 2017

JOSE CARDONA, 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) 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.

         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.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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.

         PROCEDURAL POSTURE

         Plaintiff was 45 years of age on his alleged disability onset date. (PageID.213). He possesses an eighth grade education and previously worked as a production machine tender, press operator, merchandise deliverer, fabricator/assembler, and maintenance mechanic. (PageID.53, 281). Plaintiff applied for benefits on May 28, 2013, alleging that he had been disabled since January 22, 2013, due to bi-polar disorder, depression, anxiety, ADHD, asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, mood disorder, insomnia, and an ulcer. (PageID.213-22, 280). Plaintiff's application was denied, after which time he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (PageID.105-211).

         On December 2, 2014, Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Michael Condon with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (PageID.61-102). In a written decision dated February 13, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.40-55). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's determination, rendering it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.30-35). Plaintiff subsequently initiated this appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision.

         RELEVANT MEDICAL HISTORY

         On January 14, 2011, Plaintiff participated in a stress echocardiogram examination, the results of which were “normal” and “without evidence for provokable myocardial ischemia.” (PageID.466-68).

         On December 5, 2011, Plaintiff was admitted to Forest View Hospital after he overdosed on medication. (PageID.426). Plaintiff reported that he was experiencing “depression and marital conflict.” (PageID.426). Plaintiff was treated with medication and counseling. (PageID.424-55). Plaintiff was discharged on December 20, 2011, at which point he was in “improved condition” and his “moods were more stable.” (PageID.426-28). Plaintiff was diagnosed with: (1) major depression disorder, recurrent, in remission; (2) alcohol abuse; and (3) ADHD. (PageID.428). Plaintiff's GAF score was rated as 70.[1] (PageID.428). Plaintiff was instructed to take his medication and participate in counseling. (PageID.428). No functional limitations were imposed on Plaintiff that were inconsistent with the ALJ's RFC.

         On September 19, 2013, Plaintiff participated in a consultive examination conducted by Cynthia Raven, MA, LLP. (PageID.483-87). Plaintiff reported that he watches television, drives, shops, prepares meals, “shares the household chores, ” and also visits with a friend 3-4 times weekly. (PageID.485). The results of a mental status examination were unremarkable. (PageID.485-87). Plaintiff was diagnosed with: (1) bipolar I disorder; (2) panic disorder without agoraphobia; (3) ADHD; and (4) alcohol dependence in sustained partial remission. (PageID.487). Plaintiff's GAF score was rated as 54.[2] (PageID.487).

         On October 21, 2013, Plaintiff participated in a consultive examination conducted by Dr. R. Scott Lazzara. (PageID.488-90). Plaintiff reported that he goes for walks, drives, cleans his kitchen, and watches television. (PageID.488). Plaintiff also reported that he can stand for 2 hours and lift 30 pounds. (PageID.488). A physical examination revealed the following:

MUSCULOSKELETAL: There is no evidence of joint laxity, crepitance, or effusion. Grip strength remains intact. Dexterity is unimpaired. The patient could pick up a coin, button clothing and open a door. The patient had no difficulty getting on and off the examination table, no difficulty heel and toe walking, no difficulty squatting, and no difficulty hopping. Straight leg raising is negative.
NEURO: Cranial nerves are intact. Motor strength is normal. Tone is normal. Sensory is intact to light touch and pinprick. Reflexes are intact and symmetrical. The patient walks with a normal gait without the use of an assist device.

(PageID.489).

         On June 7, 2014, Plaintiff was hospitalized after experiencing depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts following the death of his best friend. (PageID.492-660). The following day, Plaintiff tested positive for cocaine and benzodiazepine. (PageID.506). Plaintiff was treated with medication and counseling. (PageID.492-660). Plaintiff was discharged on June 17, 2014, at which point he was not experiencing any suicidal thoughts and his depression and anxiety each rated 2 on a 1-10 scale. (PageID.492, 536). Plaintiff experienced an immediate relapse and was hospitalized on June 21, 2014. (PageID.662). Plaintiff was treated with medication and counseling. (PageID.662-831). Plaintiff was discharged on June 30, 2014. (PageID.662). No functional limitations were imposed on Plaintiff that were inconsistent with the ALJ's RFC.

         On July 7, 2014, Plaintiff began treating with Douglass Judson, LMSW. (PageID.891-95). Plaintiff was diagnosed with: (1) bipolar disorder; (2) generalized anxiety disorder; and (3) alcohol dependence. (PageID.894). Plaintiff's GAF score was rated as 60.[3] (PageID.894). Treatment notes dated July 21, 2014, indicate that Plaintiff's GAF score was 62.[4] (PageID.910). Treatment notes dated July 28, 2014, indicate that Plaintiff was in “good spirits.” (PageID.955). Treatment notes dated August 4, 2014, indicate that Plaintiff's medications were providing “positive results.” (PageID914). Treatment notes dated August 19, 2014, indicate that Plaintiff was making “good progress.” (PageID.973). Plaintiff's GAF score was rated as 62. (PageID.978). Treatment notes dated September 15, 2014, indicate that Plaintiff was “doing well.” (PageID.988). Plaintiff's GAF score was rated as 62. (PageID.991).

         ANALYSIS OF THE 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), 416.920(a-f).[5] 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 his 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 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 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 suffered from: (1) asthma; (2) status post-cervical fusion surgery at ¶ 5-6; (3) fractured clavicle; (4) attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); (5) bipolar I disorder; (6) generalized anxiety disorder; 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.42-45).

         With respect to Plaintiffs residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform medium work subject to the following limitations: (1) during an 8-hour workday, he can stand/walk and sit for six hours each; (2) he can frequently climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; (3) he can have no contact with the general public and only occasional contact with co-workers and supervisors; (4) he can have only occasional exposure to temperature extremes, humidity, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, areas of poor ventilation, and chemicals; (5) he is limited to simple, routine ...


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