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Urbanczyk v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 28, 2017





         Before the Court are Plaintiff Paul David Urbanczyk's objections (Dkt. 27) to Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Stafford's July 21, 2017 Report and Recommendation ("R & R") (Dkt. 26). The R & R recommends that the Court deny Plaintiffs motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 16), grant the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security's motion for remand (Dkt. 19, 25), and remand this matter to the Defendant Commissioner under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for correction of the time period covered by the challenged decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). For the reasons discussed below, the Court OVERRULES Plaintiff's objections and ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge's R & R in its entirety.


         Neither party objects to the Magistrate Judge's account of the background facts concerning Plaintiffs claims for Social Security benefits and medical history. Accordingly, the Court adopts these unchallenged portions of the R & R.


         A district court must conduct a de novo review of any portion of a magistrate judge's R & R to which a party objects. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The district court "may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The requirement of de novo review "is a statutory recognition that Article III of the United States Constitution mandates that the judicial power of the United States be vested in judges with life tenure." United States v. Shami, 754 F.2d 670, 672 (6th Cir. 1985). Accordingly, Congress enacted 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) to "insure[ ] that the district judge would be the final arbiter" of matters referred to a magistrate judge. Flournoy v. Marshall, 842 F.2d 875, 878 (6th Cir. 1988).

         The Court must affirm the decision of the Defendant Commissioner so long as "it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards." Rogers v. Commissioner of Social Security, 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). "Substantial evidence is defined as 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 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, "it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently, and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion." Cutlip v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted).

         When determining whether the Defendant Commissioner's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, the Court confines its examination to the administrative record considered as a whole. Wyatt v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). There is no requirement, however, that either the Commissioner or this Court must discuss every piece of evidence in the record. Kornecky v. Commissioner of Social Security, No. 04-2171, 167 F.App'x 496, 508 (6th Cir. Feb. 9, 2006). Further, this Court does 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).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff objects to the R & R on two grounds. First, he takes issue with the Magistrate Judge's determination that the ALJ identified sufficient reasons, backed by substantial evidence, for discounting the opinions of Plaintiff's treating and examining physicians regarding Plaintiff's mental and physical impairments and resulting limitations. Next, he contends that the Magistrate Judge's harmless error analysis should trigger a finding of disability under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app'x 2. The Court addresses each of these objections in turn.

         As his first challenge to the R & R, Plaintiff reiterates the principal argument advanced in his underlying motion for summary judgment: namely, that the ALJ impermissibly "played doctor" by discounting the opinions of Plaintiff's treating and examining physicians, and instead substituting her own views as to the limitations resulting from Plaintiffs mental and physical impairments. Turning first to the evidence of his mental impairments, Plaintiff notes that the ALJ gave no weight to the opinions of either of the two medical professionals who evaluated Plaintiff's mental health condition, and he surmises that the ALJ must have improperly relied on her own, non-expert review of the medical record in determining that Plaintiff's mental impairments were not severe.

         The Magistrate Judge ably identified the flawed premise underlying this argument. As observed in the R & R, "it is [Plaintiff's] burden to demonstrate that he suffers from severe mental impairments." (Dkt. 26, R & R at 9.) Yet, it is indisputably the responsibility of the ALJ to evaluate the medical and non-medical evidence in order to identify Plaintiff's limitations and determine his residual functional capacity ("RFC"), and "[a]n ALJ does not improperly assume the role of a medical expert" by performing these tasks. Coldiron v. Commissioner of Social Security, No. 09-4071, 391 F.App'x 435, 439 (6th Cir. Aug. 12, 2010). As explained by the Magistrate Judge, once the ALJ considered the opinions of the two mental health professionals who evaluated Plaintiff and determined that these opinions were entitled to no weight, it readily followed - and the ALJ properly concluded - that Plaintiff had not met his burden of establishing that he suffers from a severe mental impairment that would "preclude[] him from performing basic work activities." (Dkt. 26, R & R at 9, 12.)[1] In the absence of evidence supporting a claimant's allegation of a severe impairment with attendant limitations, an ALJ does not "play doctor" by declining to incorporate the alleged impairment and limitations into an RFC finding.

         Likewise, as for Plaintiffs contention that the ALJ also "played doctor" in discounting the opinions of various medical professionals regarding Plaintiff's physical limitations, the Court again agrees with the Magistrate Judge that the ALJ instead engaged in the appropriate function of determining, in light of the record, what weight should be given to these opinions. (See Id. at 14-21.) Contrary to Plaintiffs assertion that the ALJ "simply ignored medical opinions as to [Plaintiffs] physical limitations" and substituted "her own independent conclusions" on matters that demand medical expertise, (Dkt. 27, Plaintiffs Objections at 4), the Magistrate Judge carefully reviewed the ALJ's decision and found (i) that the ALJ had supplied the requisite "good reasons" for discounting the opinion of Plaintiffs treating physician, Dr. Harris, (R & R at 15-17), (ii) that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's determination to give little weight to the opinion of Dr. Glowacki, an ...

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