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Quattlebaum v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 2, 2017

JONNIE QUATTLEBAUM, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant

          OPINION AND ORDER ON CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DOCS. 12, 18)

          PATRICIA T. MORRIS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. OPINION

         A. Introduction and Procedural History

         This is an action for judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Jonnie Quattlebaum's (“Quattlebaum”) claim for disability benefits under the Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) program of Title II, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. (Doc. 1). The case is before the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to the parties' consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), E.D. Mich. LR 72.1(b)(3), and by Notice of Reference. (Docs. 16, 17). The matter is currently before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 12, 18).

         On November 2, 2009, Quattlebaum filed an application for DIB alleging a disability onset date of January 23, 2009. (Tr. 179-86). The Commissioner denied her claim. (Tr. 104-10). Quattlebaum then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which occurred on October 6, 2011, before ALJ Edward Bowling. (Tr. 44-103). The ALJ's written decision, issued February 24, 2012, found Quattlebaum not disabled. (Tr. 16-43). On February 20, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review. (Tr. 1-6). She appealed this denial, however, and the Commissioner decided not to oppose her action, requesting instead that the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina remand the case for further administrative proceedings. (Tr. 1319-25). Another hearing was held on May 6, 2015, before ALJ James Gramenos. (Tr. 1241-1312). He issued an unfavorable written decision on September 14, 2015, (Tr. 1209-40), and the Appeals Council later denied review, (Tr. 1194-99). Quattlebaum again filed for judicial review of that final decision on August 19, 2016. (Doc. 1).

         B. Standard of Review

         The district court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The district court's review is restricted solely to determining whether the “Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.” Sullivan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 595 F App'x. 502, 506 (6th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). 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 v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The Court must examine the administrative record as a whole, and may consider any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the ALJ. See Walker v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 884 F.2d 241, 245 (6th Cir. 1989). The Court will not “try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor decide questions of credibility.” Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). 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.” Id. at 286 (internal citations omitted).

         C. Framework for Disability Determinations

         Under the Act, “DIB and SSI are available only for those who have a ‘disability.'” Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). “Disability” means 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 [twelve] months.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (DIB); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a) (SSI). The Commissioner's regulations provide that disability is to be determined through the application of a five-step sequential analysis:

(i) At the first step, we consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled.
(ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement . . . or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled.
(iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled.
(iv) At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled.
(v) At the fifth and last step, we condiser our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your age, education, and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you cannot make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are disabled.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001). “Through step four, the claimant bears the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by [his or] her impairments and the fact that she is precluded from performing [his or] her past relevant work.” Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). The burden transfers to the Commissioner if the analysis reaches the fifth step without a finding that the claimant is not disabled. 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 “other jobs in significant numbers exist in the national economy that [the claimant] could perform given [his or] her RFC [residual functional capacity] and considering relevant vocational factors.” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), (g)).

         Under the authority of the Social Security Act, the SSA has promulgated regulations that provide for the payment of disabled child's insurance benefits if the claimant is at least eighteen years old and has a disability that began before age twenty-two (20 C.F.R. 404.350(a) (5) (2013). A claimant must establish a medically determinable physical or mental impairment (expected to last at least twelve months or result in death) that rendered her unable to engage in substantial gainful activity. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The regulations provide a five-step sequential evaluation for evaluating disability claims. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         D. ALJ Findings

         Following the five-step sequential analysis, the ALJ found Quattlebaum not disabled. (Tr. 1209-40). At Step One, the ALJ found that Quattlebaum last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2013, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity in the interval between her alleged onset date of January 23, 2009 and her date last insured. (Tr. 1216). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that the following impairments qualified as severe: pseudo seizures/seizures; chronic headaches; history of left knee surgery; degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; obesity; bipolar disorder; anxiety; and post-traumatic stress disorder. (Tr. 1216). The ALJ also decided, however, that none of these met or medically equaled a listed impairment at Step Three. (Tr. 1216-18). Thereafter, the ALJ found that Quattlebaum had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, except

Claimant can ‘occasionally[]' . . . lift and/or carry weights not to exceed 10 pounds. Can ‘frequently[]' . . . lift weights not to exceed 5 pounds. Able to engage in the positions of standing and/or walking in the work setting, assuming normal work periods of work breaks, for an overall total of up to at least 2 hours during normal 8-hour work periods. Assuming normal breaks in an 8-hour work setting, has the functional abilities to engage in sitting positions for at least an overall period of 6-hours when performing work activity. Eliminate jobs from consideration that would require the worker, as related to specific job titles and duties, to engage bending form [sic] waist and/or knees to pick up objects or items from the floor level, other than rare situations. Eliminate jobs that by the DOT definition of the job title would require the worker to engage in reaching above the shoulder level with either upper extremity. Claimant shall not perform jobs that would have extremes of cold, heat, wetness, and humidity. Able to focus on the job for at least 2-hours at a time, taking into consideration normal 15 minute work break midway during the first 4-hours, during the meal period break, in addition to the 15-minute break midway during the last 4-hours of work. Claimant shall not engage in work activity in jobs that would have hazards in the work setting from unprotected areas such as moving machinery; heights; ramps; ladders; and scaffolding. Claimant is educated in the English language and has the basic mental abilities to understand, remember, and carry out unskilled work through instructions in the English language and/or demonstration. Is able to engage in unskilled work activity that does not require working with the general public, or a tandem type job with other workers. Claimant has the mental functioning abilities to respond appropriately to usual work situations, and with coworkers. Has the ability to get along with coworkers and supervisors without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes. Claimant requires job assignments that would allow for superficial interactions with supervisors and coworkers.

(Tr. 1220-21). At Step Four, the ALJ found Quattlebaum did not have any past relevant work. (Tr. 1228). Proceeding to Step Five, the ALJ determined that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Quattlebaum could perform. (Tr. 1229-30).

         E. Administrative Record

         1. Medical Evidence

         The Court has reviewed Quattlebaum's medical record. In lieu of summarizing her medical history here, the Court will make references and provide citations to the record as necessary in its discussion of the parties' arguments.

         2. Application Reports and ...


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