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Thomas v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 26, 2017

KEVIN M. THOMAS, Plaintiff,



         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Kevin Thomas seeks judicial review of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security's determination that he is not entitled to social security benefits. (Docket no. 1.) Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (docket no. 14) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (docket no. 18). With consent of the parties, this case has been referred to the undersigned for final judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. (Docket no. 15.) The Court has reviewed the pleadings and dispenses with a hearing pursuant to Eastern District of Michigan Local Rule 7.1(f)(2).


         On June 12, 2013, Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on the basis of several physical and mental impairments. (TR 34.) The Social Security Administration initially denied Plaintiff's claims on September 27, 2013. (TR 100-03.) On June 18, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with a representative and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) JoErin O'Leavy. (TR 31.) On July 31, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on Plaintiff's claims. (TR 31-43.) Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision with the Appeals Council, which was denied on August 12, 2016. (TR 1.) On October 5, 2016, Plaintiff commenced this action for judicial review, and the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment, which are currently before the Court. (Docket no. 14; docket no. 18.)


         Plaintiff sets forth a brief procedural history of this matter as well as a short summary of the relevant medical records. (Docket no. 14, pp. 1-6.) The ALJ summarized Plaintiff's medical records (TR 38-42), and Defendant provided an additional summary of Plaintiff's medical and non-medical records (docket no. 18, pp. 2-7). Having conducted an independent review of Plaintiff's medical record and the hearing transcript, the undersigned finds that there are no material inconsistencies among these recitations of the record. Therefore, in lieu of re-summarizing this information, the undersigned will incorporate the above-cited factual recitations by reference and will also make references and citations to the record as necessary to address the parties' arguments throughout this opinion.


         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity since June 12, 2013, the application date. (TR 36.) In addition, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “asthma, affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and personality disorder.” (Id.) Nevertheless, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.) In addition, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to do a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following non-exertional limitations: he was unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; he could not work around unprotected heights or dangerous moving mechanical parts; he should avoid concentrated exposure to dust, odors, fumes, pulmonary irritants, and extreme temperatures; he was limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks not at a production rate pace; he was limited to simple work-related decisions; and he could occasionally interact with supervisors and coworkers but never with the public. (TR. 38.) On the basis of this determination, the ALJ posed a hypothetical to the Vocational Expert (“VE”), who testified Plaintiff is capable of performing occupations that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including cook helper, cleaner, and clerical assistant. (TR 42-43.) Consequently, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time since June 12, 2013, the application date. (TR 43.)


         A. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decisions. Judicial review of the Commissioner's decisions is limited to determining whether his findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether he employed the proper legal standards. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Walters v. Comm'r, 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Walters, 127 F.3d at 528. It is not the function of this Court to try cases de novo, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or decide questions of credibility. See Brainard v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 1989); Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984).

         In determining the existence of substantial evidence, the court must examine the administrative record as a whole. See Kirk v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 536 (6th Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 957 (1983). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be affirmed, even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently, Kinsella v. Schweiker, 708 F.2d 1058, 1059 (6th Cir. 1983), and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion. See Her v. Comm'r, 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999); Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (en banc) (noting that the substantial evidence standard “presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which the decisionmakers can go either way, without interference by the courts”). “But ‘[a]n ALJ's failure to follow agency rules and regulations denotes a lack of substantial evidence, even where the conclusion of the ALJ may be justified based upon the record.'” Gayheart v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 710 F.3d 365, 374 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting Cole v. Astrue, 661 F.3d 931, 937 (6th Cir. 2011)).

         B. Framework for Social Security Determinations

         Plaintiff's Social Security disability determination was made in accordance with a five-step sequential analysis. In the first ...

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