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Hamilton v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 30, 2017

LINCOLN HAMILTON III, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT.

          BERNARD A. FRIEDMAN SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is presently before the Court on cross motions for summary judgment [docket entries 14 and 15]. Pursuant to E.D. Mich. 7.1(f)(2), the Court shall decide these motions without a hearing. For the reasons stated below, the Court shall grant plaintiff's motion, deny defendant's motion, and remand the matter for further proceedings.

         Plaintiff has brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to challenge defendant's final decision denying his applications for Supplemental Security Income and Social Security disability insurance benefits. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing in March 2015 (Tr. 39-78) and issued a decision denying benefits the same month (Tr. 22-33). In June 2016, this became defendant's final decision when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 8-11).

         Under § 405(g), the issue before the Court is whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. As the Sixth Circuit has explained, the Court

must affirm the Commissioner's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence and the Commissioner employed the proper legal standard. White, 572 F.3d at 281 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)); Elam ex rel. Golay v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 348 F.3d 124, 125 (6th Cir. 2003); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Kyle, 609 F.3d at 854 (quoting Lindsley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 560 F.3d 601, 604 (6th Cir. 2009)). Where the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be upheld even if the record might support a contrary conclusion. Smith v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 893 F.2d 106, 108 (6th Cir. 1989). However, a substantiality of evidence evaluation does not permit a selective reading of the record. “Substantiality of the evidence must be based upon the record taken as a whole. Substantial evidence is not simply some evidence, or even a great deal of evidence. Rather, the substantiality of evidence must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 388 (6th Cir. 1984) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

Brooks v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 531 F. App'x 636, 640-41 (6th Cir. 2013).

         At the time of the ALJ's decision, plaintiff was 48 years old (Tr. 48). He has a college education (Tr. 48) but no relevant work experience (Tr. 73, 215). Plaintiff claims he has been disabled since July 2013 due to a seizure disorder, back pain, and anxiety attacks (Tr. 46, 208).

         The ALJ found that plaintiff has no severe impairments (Tr. 28, finding 4). Specifically, the ALJ found that plaintiff's lumbar spine disorder, while medically determined, is non-severe (Tr. 31) and that his seizure disorder and panic attacks are not medically determined (Tr. 29). The ALJ therefore concluded at step two of the sequential evaluation process that plaintiff is not disabled.

         Having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefs, the Court concludes that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's finding that plaintiff has no severe impairments. For the reasons stated below, the Court shall remand the matter for further proceedings beyond step two.

         First, substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's finding that plaintiff's lumbar spine disorder is a non-severe impairment (Tr. 28). As this Court has explained,

[a] severe impairment or combination of impairments is one that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Basic work activities, defined as the physical or mental abilities and aptitudes necessary to perform most jobs, includes the ability to walk; stand; sit; lift; push; pull; reach; carry; handle; see; hear; speak; understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions; use judgment; respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers and usual work situations; and deal with changes in a routine work setting. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521, 416.921. The Sixth Circuit court has determined that the step-two requirement serves as a “de minimus” threshold hurdle in the disability process. Higgs v. Bowen, 880 F.2d 860, 862-63 (6th Cir.1988). The inquiry at step two functions as an “administrative convenience to screen out claims that are totally groundless” from a medical perspective. Id. at 863 (citation omitted). An impairment will be considered non-severe only if it is a “slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education and work experience.” Farris v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 773 F.2d 85, 90 (6th Cir.1985) (citation omitted). “Under this standard, the question . . . is whether there is substantial evidence in the record supporting the ALJ's finding that [the plaintiff] has only a ‘slight' impairment that does not affect her ability to work.” Id.

Betty v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 15-CV-10734, 2016 WL 1105008, at *3 (E.D. Mich. Feb. 17, 2016), report and recommendation adopted, No. 15-CV-10734-DT, 2016 WL 1090554 (E.D. Mich. Mar. 21, 2016).

         In the present case, the ALJ clearly erred in dismissing plaintiff's lumbar spine disorder on the grounds that it “does not significantly limit (have more than a minimal effect on) his ability to perform basic work activities” (Tr. 31). In October 2014, an MRI of plaintiff's lumbar spine revealed

1. Right paracentral disc protrusion at ΒΆ 5-S1 which abuts the right S1 nerve root without ...

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