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Blankenship v. Berryhill

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

October 13, 2017


          Judge Honorable Avern Cohn


          ELIZABETH A. STAFFORD United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Anthony Blankenship appeals a final decision of defendant Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying his application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income benefits (SSI) under the Social Security Act. Both parties have filed summary judgment motions[1], referred to this Court for a report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). After review of the record, the Court finds that the ALJ failed to give good reasons on the record for according less than controlling weight to the treating physician's opinions, and thus RECOMMENDS that:

         . the Commissioner's motion [ECF No. 12] be DENIED;

         . Blankenship's motion [ECF No. 11] be GRANTED IN PART to the extent it seeks remand, but DENIED IN PART to the extent it seeks reversal and a direct award of benefits; and

         . the matter be REMANDED pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further consideration consistent with this report and recommendation.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Blankenship's Background and Disability Applications

         Born October 12, 1964, Blankenship was 50 years old at the time of his amended alleged onset date of October 12, 2014. [ECF No. 9-2, Tr. 20, 27]. He submitted his applications for disability benefits in April 2014 and was insured for DIB purposes through December 31, 2017. [ECF No. 9-2, Tr. 20; ECF No. 9-5, Tr. 145-158]. Blankenship has a limited education, but is able to communicate in English. [ECF No. 9-2, Tr. 27]. He has prior work history as a tow truck driver and as a crew manager. [Id.] He claimed to be disabled due to back problems, emphysema, and hypertension. [ECF No. 9-2, Tr. 22; citing Ex. 2E].

         After the Commissioner initially denied his application, Blankenship requested a hearing, which took place in January 2016, during which he and a vocational expert (VE) testified. [ECF No. 9-2, Tr. 34-56]. In a February 9, 2016, written decision, the ALJ found Blankenship to be not disabled. [ECF No. 9-2, Tr. 15-33]. The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, and Blankenship timely filed for judicial review. [ECF No. 9-2, Tr. 1-6; ECF No. 1].

         B. The ALJ's Application of the Disability Framework Analysis

         DIB and SSI are available for those who have a “disability.” See Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). A “disability” is the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A).

         The Commissioner determines whether an applicant is disabled by analyzing five sequential steps. First, if the applicant is “doing substantial gainful activity, ” he or she will be found not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4).[2] Second, if the claimant has not had a severe impairment or a combination of such impairments for a continuous period of at least 12 months, no disability will be found.[3] Id. Third, if the claimant's severe impairments meet or equal the criteria of an impairment set forth in the Commissioner's Listing of Impairments, the claimant will be found disabled. Id. If the fourth step is reached, the Commissioner considers its assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), and will find the claimant not disabled if he or she can still do past relevant work. Id. At the final step, the Commissioner reviews the claimant's RFC, age, education and work experiences, and determines whether the claimant could adjust to other work. Id. The claimant bears the burden of proof throughout the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner if the fifth step is reached. Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).

         Applying this framework, the ALJ concluded that Blankenship was not disabled. At the first step, he found that Blankenship had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his amended alleged onset date. [ECF No. 9-2, Tr. 20]. At the second step, the ALJ found that Blankenship had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with radiculopathy; status-post lumbar discectomy and laminectomy (2013); peripheral neuropathy; hypertension; and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). [Id.] Next, the ALJ concluded that none of his impairments, either alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. [Id., Tr. 21].

         Between the third and fourth steps, the ALJ found that Blankenship had the following RFC:

Claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with lifting and carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, sitting for six hours, standing for four hours, and walking for four hours; requires the use of a cane for frequent walking for pain and balancing; able to lift while using a cane; pushing and pulling is limited to as much as he can lift and carry; only occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; no climbing ladders or scaffolds; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; must avoid all hazards including unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, and operating a motor vehicle; and must avoid concentrated exposure to humidity and wetness, respiratory irritants, and extreme temperatures.

[Id., Tr. 21]. At step four, the ALJ found that Blankenship was unable to perform any past relevant work. [Id., Tr. 27]. With the assistance of VE testimony, he determined at step five that Blankenship could perform occupations such as packer, sorter, and inspector and that those jobs existed in significant numbers in the ...

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