United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division
S. CARMODY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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
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
OF THE ALJ'S DECISION
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). 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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
The ALJ's Credibility Assessment is Supported by
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
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
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 ...