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Benton v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 12, 2017

MELINDA BENTON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          ELLEN S. CARMODY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This is an action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. The parties have agreed to proceed in this Court for all further proceedings, including an order of final judgment.

         Section 405(g) limits the Court to a review of the administrative record and provides that if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence it shall be conclusive. The Commissioner has found that Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. For the reasons stated below, the Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

         STANDARDOFREVIEW

         The Court's jurisdiction is confined to a review of the Commissioner's decision and of the record made in the administrative hearing process. See Willbanks v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 847 F.2d 301, 303 (6th Cir. 1988). The scope of judicial review in a social security case is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards in making her decision and whether there exists in the record substantial evidence supporting that decision. See Brainard v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 1989). The Court may not conduct a de novo review of the case, resolve evidentiary conflicts, or decide questions of credibility. See Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). It is the Commissioner who is charged with finding the facts relevant to an application for disability benefits, and her findings are conclusive provided they are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. See Cohen v. Sec'y of Dep't of Health and Human Services, 964 F.2d 524, 528 (6th Cir. 1992) (citations omitted). It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Bogle v. Sullivan, 998 F.2d 342, 347 (6th Cir. 1993). In determining the substantiality of the evidence, the Court must consider the evidence on the record as a whole and take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight. See Richardson v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 735 F.2d 962, 963 (6th Cir. 1984). As has been widely recognized, the substantial evidence standard presupposes the existence of a zone within which the decision maker can properly rule either way, without judicial interference. See Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (citation omitted). This standard affords to the administrative decision maker considerable latitude, and indicates that a decision supported by substantial evidence will not be reversed simply because the evidence would have supported a contrary decision. See Bogle, 998 F.2d at 347; Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545.

         PROCEDURAL POSTURE

         Plaintiff was 38 years of age on her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.308). She successfully completed high school and worked previously as an office manager. (PageID.103-04). Plaintiff applied for benefits on July 30, 2013, alleging that she had been disabled since January 1, 2012, due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic depression, spinal stenosis, and spondylosis. (PageID.43, 308-18, 331, 338). Plaintiff's application was denied, after which time she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (PageID.212-303).

         On May 6, 2015, Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Nicholas Ohanesian with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (PageID.39-75). In a written decision dated June 12, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.92-105). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's determination, rendering it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.80-85). Plaintiff subsequently initiated this pro se appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision.[1]

         Plaintiff alleges that on September 23, 2016, she submitted another claim for SSI benefits which was granted on December 16, 2016. (ECF No. 13 at PageID.1021, 1048). Plaintiff argues that this subsequent grant of benefits “provides evidence to support [her] original Title II claim.” (ECF No. 13 at PageID.1021). The grant of a subsequent application for disability benefits, however, is not relevant on the question whether the decision to deny a previous application for benefits is supported by substantial evidence. See, e.g., Allen v. Commissioner of Social Security, 561 F.3d 646, 654 (6th Cir. 2009) (subsequent grant of benefits may be based upon changed circumstances and/or evidence not before the prior ALJ and, therefore, is not relevant to assessment of prior ALJ's decision); Atkinson v. Astrue, 2011 WL 3664346 at *16 (E.D. N.C., July 20, 2011) (same). This is especially true, here, where Plaintiff's insured status for DIB benefits expired several years before the time period relevant to Plaintiff's September 23, 2016 application for SSI benefits.

         ANALYSIS OF THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The social security regulations articulate a five-step sequential process for evaluating disability. See 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a-f), 416.920(a-f).[2] If the Commissioner can make a dispositive finding at any point in the review, no further finding is required. See 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). The regulations also provide that if a claimant suffers from a nonexertional impairment as well as an exertional impairment, both are considered in determining her residual functional capacity. See 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1545, 416.945.

         The burden of establishing the right to benefits rests squarely on Plaintiff's shoulders, and she can satisfy her burden by demonstrating that her impairments are so severe that she is unable to perform her previous work, and cannot, considering her age, education, and work experience, perform any other substantial gainful employment existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); Cohen, 964 F.2d at 528. While the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five, Plaintiff bears the burden of proof through step four of the procedure, the point at which her residual functioning capacity (RFC) is determined. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997) (ALJ determines RFC at step four, at which point claimant bears the burden of proof).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from: (1) fibromyalgia; (2) degenerative disc disease; (3) post-traumatic stress disorder; and (4) a depressive disorder, severe impairments that whether considered alone or in combination with other impairments, failed to satisfy the requirements of any impairment identified in the Listing of Impairments detailed in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (PageID.94-97).

         With respect to Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform light work subject to the following limitations: (1) she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (2) she can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; (3) she can have frequent exposure to extremes of heat, humidity, and cold; (4) she is limited to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks with occasional contact with the public, co-workers, or supervisors; (5) she cannot perform production rate or pace work; and (6) she is limited to jobs involving no more than one change in job duties per week. (PageID.97).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work at which point the burden of proof shifted to the Commissioner to establish by substantial evidence that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy which Plaintiff could perform, her limitations notwithstanding. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. While the ALJ is not required to question a vocational expert on this issue, ''a finding supported by substantial evidence that a claimant has the vocational qualifications to perform specific jobs" is needed to meet the burden. O'Banner v. Secy of Health and Human Services, 587 F.2d 321, 323 (6th Cir. 1978) (emphasis added). This standard requires more than mere intuition or conjecture by the ALJ that the claimant can perform specific jobs in the national economy. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. Accordingly, ALJs routinely question vocational experts in an attempt to determine whether there exist a significant number of jobs which a particular claimant can perform, his limitations notwithstanding. Such was the case here, as the ALJ questioned a vocational expert.

         The vocational expert testified that there existed approximately 135, 000 jobs in the national economy which an individual with Plaintiffs RFC could perform, such limitations notwithstanding. (PageID.66-71). This represents a significant number of jobs. See Born v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 923 F.2d 1168, 1174 (6th Cir. 1990); Hall v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 272, 274 (6th Cir. 1988); Martin v. Commissioner of Social Security, 170 Fed.Appx. 369, 374 (6th Cir., Mar. 1, 2006). The vocational expert further testified that if Plaintiff additionally required a sit/stand option, there still existed approximately 42, 000 jobs in the state of Michigan which Plaintiff could perform consistent with her RFC. (PageID.73). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits.

         I. The ALJ's Credibility Assessment is Supported by Substantial Evidence

         At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff testified that she was far more limited than the ALJ determined in his RFC assessment. For example, Plaintiff testified that “there are days where [she] can't take a shower” because of “panic attacks.” (PageID.52). Plaintiff testified that she often cannot watch television because “there's some commercials that upset me and disrupt my emotions.” (PageID.54). Plaintiff reported that, except for weekly doctor's appointments, she does not leave her house. (PageID.55). Plaintiff reported that the trauma of learning she was adopted caused her to experience debilitating, work preclusive symptoms. (PageID.59-62). Plaintiff reported that she experiences debilitating headaches several times weekly as well as constant pain, tingling, and numbness from “head to toe.” (PageID.62-66). The ALJ found that Plaintiff was not entirely credible and, accordingly, discounted her subjective allegations. (PageID.100-01). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's credibility determination is not supported by substantial evidence.

         As the Sixth Circuit has long recognized, ''pain alone, if the result of a medical impairment, may be severe enough to constitute disability.'' King v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 968, 974 (6th Cir. 1984) (emphasis added); see also, Grecol v. Halter, 46 Fed.Appx. 773, 775 (6th Cir., Aug. 29, 2002) (same). As the relevant Social Security regulations make clear, however, a claimant's ''statements about [his] pain or other symptoms will not alone establish that [he is] disabled.'' 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1529(a); see also, Walters v. Commissioner of Social Security, 127 F.3d 525, 531 (6th Cir. 1997) (quoting 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1529(a)) Hash v. Commissioner of Social Security, 309 Fed.Appx. 981, 989 (6th Cir., Feb. 10, 2009). Instead, as the Sixth Circuit has established, a claimant's assertions of disabling pain and limitation are evaluated pursuant to the following standard:

First, we examine whether there is objective medical evidence of an underlying medical condition. If there is, we then examine: (1) whether objective medical evidence confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising from the condition; or (2) whether the objectively established medical condition is of such a ...

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