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Little v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 27, 2017

DEBRA F. LITTLE, Plaintiff,



         This case is an appeal of the denial of Plaintiff's application for social security disability insurance benefits. This matter is before the Court on Magistrate Judge Anthony P. Patti's report and recommendation dated August 14, 2017 (Dkt. 26), recommending that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be granted, that Defendant's motion for summary judgment be denied, and that this matter be remanded for further proceedings.

         The law provides that either party may serve and file written objections “[w]ithin fourteen days after being served with a copy” of the report and recommendation. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Defendant filed timely objections (Dkt. 27) to the report and recommendation; Plaintiff filed a response to Defendant's objections (Dkt. 28). A district court must conduct a de novo review of the parts of a report and recommendation to which a party objects. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). “A judge of the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.” Id.

         The Court has reviewed Magistrate Judge Patti's report and recommendation, and Defendant's objections thereto. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's objections are OVERRULED, and the report and recommendation is ACCEPTED and ADOPTED as the opinion of the Court. Consequently, Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED, Defendant's motion for summary judgment is DENIED, and this matter is REMANDED pursuant to sentence four of to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings, consistent with the discussion below.


         A. The Social Security Act

         The Social Security Act “entitles benefits to certain claimants who, by virtue of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment of at least a year's expected duration, cannot engage in ‘substantial gainful activity.'” Combs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 459 F.3d 640, 642 (6th Cir. 2006) (en banc) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). A claimant qualifies as disabled “if she cannot, in light of her age, education, and work experience, ‘engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.'” Combs, 459 F.3d at 642 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)).

         Under the authority of the Act, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The five steps are as follows:

In step one, the SSA identifies claimants who “are doing substantial gainful activity” and concludes that these claimants are not disabled. [20 C.F.R.] § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If claimants get past this step, the SSA at step two considers the “medical severity” of claimants' impairments, particularly whether such impairments have lasted or will last for at least twelve months. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Claimants with impairments of insufficient duration are not disabled. See id. Those with impairments that have lasted or will last at least twelve months proceed to step three.
At step three, the SSA examines the severity of claimants' impairments but with a view not solely to their duration but also to the degree of affliction imposed. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). Claimants are conclusively presumed to be disabled if they suffer from an infirmity that appears on the SSA's special list of impairments, or that is at least equal in severity to those listed. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d). The list identifies and defines impairments that are of sufficient severity as to prevent any gainful activity. See Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 532 (1990). A person with such an impairment or an equivalent, consequently, necessarily satisfies the statutory definition of disability. For such claimants, the process ends at step three. Claimants with lesser impairments proceed to step four.
In the fourth step, the SSA evaluates claimant's “residual functional capacity, ” defined as “the most [the claimant] can still do despite [her] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). Claimants whose residual functional capacity permits them to perform their “past relevant work” are not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (f). “Past relevant work” is defined as work claimants have done within the past fifteen years that is “substantial gainful activity” and that lasted long enough for the claimant to learn to do it. Id. § 404.1560(b)(1). Claimants who can still do their past relevant work are not disabled. Those who cannot do their past relevant work proceed to the fifth step, in which the SSA determines whether claimants, in light of their residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience, can perform “substantial gainful activity” other than their past relevant work. See id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v), (g)(1). Claimants who can perform such work are not disabled. See id.; § 404.1560(c)(1).

Combs, 459 F.3d at 642-43.

         “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 v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). If the analysis reaches the fifth step, the burden transfers to the Commissioner. See Combs, 459 F.3d at 643. At that point, the Commissioner is required to show that “other jobs in significant numbers exist in the national economy that [claimant] could perform given her RFC and considering relevant vocational factors.” Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007); 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v) and (g).

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Where the Appeals Council denies review, the ALJ's decision stands as the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Judicial review, however, is circumscribed 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). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support the ALJ's conclusion.” Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007) (quotation marks omitted) (quoting Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 353 (6th Cir. 2001)). This substantial evidence standard is less exacting than the preponderance of evidence standard. See Bass, 499 F.3d at 509 (citing Bell v. ...

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