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Grandstaff v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 26, 2017

STACIE GRANDSTAFF, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DKT. 21, 24)

          Stephanie Dawkins Davis, United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         A. Proceedings in this Court

         On July 22, 2016, plaintiff filed the instant suit seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision disallowing social security disability benefits. (Dkt. 1). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 72.1(b)(3), District Judge Thomas L. Ludington referred this matter to the undersigned magistrate judge for the purpose of reviewing the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiff's claims. (Dkt. 3). On September 9, 2016, the parties filed a notice of consent to this Magistrate Judge's authority, which was signed by Judge Ludington on September 13, 2016. (Dkt. 15, 16). The matter is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Dkt. 21, 24). A hearing on the cross- motions for summary judgment was held on June 14, 2016, pursuant to notice. (Dkt. 25).

         B. Administrative Proceedings

         On July 21, 2013, plaintiff filed claims for period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning August 1, 2009. (Dkt. 18-2, Pg ID 51). The Commissioner initially denied plaintiff's disability application on October 8, 2013. Id. Thereafter, plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, and on February 18, 2015, she appeared without counsel before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) John A. Ransom, who considered his case de novo. (Dkt. 18-2, Pg ID 62-80). In a February 25, 2015 decision, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Id. at Pg ID 48-58. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on June 3, 2016, when the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. Id. at Pg ID 44-46.

         For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned DENIES plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, GRANTS defendant's motion for summary judgment, and AFFIRMS the findings of the Commissioner.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On the last date insured, plaintiff was 35 years old, which falls into the category of “a younger individual.” (Dkt. 18-2, Pg ID 57). Plaintiff, a resident of Flint, Michigan, has past relevant work as a support staff nurse aide, which is semi-skilled and heavy in exertion, and as a sales manager, which is exertionally sedentary and semi-skilled. Id. Plaintiff suffers from hip pain, back pain, neck pain, and shoulder pain. (Dkt. 18-2, Pg ID 53). Plaintiff stopped working in 2009 because her physician advised her to stop working due to her back condition. (Dkt. 18-2, Pg ID 66).

         The ALJ applied the five-step disability analysis to plaintiff's claims and found at step one that plaintiff did not engage in any substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (Dkt. 18-2, Pg ID 53). At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: left hip pain, neck and back pain, and right shoulder pain. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled one of the listings in the regulations. Id. at Pg ID 53-54. The ALJ determined that plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a); with no repetitive bending, twisting or turning; occasional crawling, squatting, kneeling, and stair climbing; occasional pushing or pulling; no use of air or vibrating tools; no prolonged walking or standing; no overhead work; occasional keyboarding and fine dexterity of the right upper extremity with no limits on the left upper extremity with respect to fine dexterity.

Id. at Pg ID 54. At step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. Id. at Pg ID 57. At step five, the ALJ found that, given plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, there are sufficient jobs that exist in the national economy that plaintiff can perform. Id. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has not been under a disability from the alleged onset date through the last date insured. Id. at Pg ID 58.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         This Court has original jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review under this statute is limited in that the court “must affirm the Commissioner's conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.” Longworth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). In deciding whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, “we do not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence, or decide questions of credibility.” Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007); Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). “It is of course for the ALJ, and not the reviewing court, to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, including that of the claimant.” Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 247 (6th Cir. 2007). “However, the ALJ is not free to make credibility determinations based solely upon an ‘intangible or intuitive notion about an individual's credibility.'” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 247, quoting Soc. Sec. Rul. 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, *4.

         If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Therefore, this Court may not reverse the Commissioner's decision merely because it disagrees or because “there exists in the record substantial evidence to support a different conclusion.” McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006); Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (en banc). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241; Jones, 336 F.3d at 475. “The substantial evidence standard presupposes that there is a ‘zone of choice' within which the Commissioner may proceed without interference from the courts.” Felisky v. Bowen, 35 F.3d 1027, 1035 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted), citing Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545.

         The Commissioner's regulations provide that disability is to be determined through the application of a five-step sequential analysis:

Step One: If the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Two: If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, that “significantly limits ... physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Three: If plaintiff is not performing substantial gainful activity, has a severe impairment that is expected to last for at least twelve months, and the severe impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the regulations, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled regardless of age, education or work experience.
Step Four: If the claimant is able to perform his or her past relevant work, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Five: Even if the claimant is unable to perform his or her past relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, in view of his or her age, education, and work experience, benefits are denied.

Carpenter v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2008 WL 4793424 (E.D. Mich. 2008), citing, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Heston, 245 F.3d at 534. “If the Commissioner makes a dispositive finding at any point in the five-step process, the review terminates.” Colvin, 475 F.3d at 730.

         “Through step four, the claimant bears the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by her impairments and the fact that she is precluded from performing her past relevant work.” Jones, 336 F.3d at 474, cited with approval in Cruse, 502 F.3d at 540. If the analysis reaches the fifth step without a finding that the claimant is not disabled, the burden transfers to the Commissioner. Combs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 459 F.3d 640, 643 (6th Cir. 2006). At the fifth step, the Commissioner is required to show that ÔÇťother jobs in significant numbers exist in the national economy that ...


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