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Seiler v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 1, 2018

PATRICIA A. SEILER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          Corbett O'Meara District Judge.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION TO DENY PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DE 14) AND GRANT DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DE 18)

          Anthony P. Patti UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. RECOMMENDATION: For the reasons that follow, it is RECOMMENDED that the Court DENY Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (DE 14), GRANT Defendant's motion for summary judgment (DE 18), and AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

         II. REPORT

         Plaintiff, Patricia A. Seiler, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for social security disability insurance (DI) benefits. This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge for a Report and Recommendation on Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (DE 14), the Commissioner's cross motion for summary judgment (DE 18), and the administrative record (DE 12).

         A. Background

         Plaintiff filed her application for DI benefits on September 26, 2013, alleging that she has been disabled since January 1, 2012. (R. at 130-37.) Plaintiff's application was denied, and she sought a de novo hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. at 75, 86-89.) ALJ Patricia S. McKay held a hearing on May 11, 2015 ─ at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (R. at 27-74.) The ALJ considered all of the evidence and determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 10-22.) On August 17, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 1-5.) Thus, ALJ McKay's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff then timely commenced the instant action on October 3, 2016. (DE 1.)

         B. Plaintiff's Medical History

         Plaintiff's combined medical records span the period from September 30, 2011 through May 19, 2015. (R. at 201-452.) The 251 pages of medical records are mostly comprised of hospital and treatment records and diagnostic tests, and include a January 18, 2014 consultative examination by Dr. Alexander Lund. These records will be discussed in relevant part as necessary below.

         C. Hearing Testimony

         Plaintiff and vocational expert Kelly Stroker testified at the August 27, 2015 hearing before ALJ McKay. (See R. at 27-74.) The hearing testimony will be discussed as necessary below.

         D. The Administrative Decision

         On September 12, 2015, ALJ McKay issued an “unfavorable” decision. At Step 1 of the sequential evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of January 1, 2012. (R. at 15.) At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe pulmonary and orthopedic impairments, which are discussed in detail below. (R. at 15-17.) At Step 3, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. at 17.) Prior to Step 4 of the sequential process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] to:

perform sedentary work … except that she: is limited to occasional climbing of stairs, crouching, crawling, kneeling, stooping/bending; must avoid workplace hazards such as moving machinery, unprotected heights, and climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolding; and must avoid continuous exposure to pulmonary irritants.

         (R. at 17-21.) At Step 4, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a legal secretary, as it is generally performed, and that she therefore is not disabled. (R. at 21-22.)

         E. Standard of Review

         The District Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). When reviewing a case under the Social Security Act, the Court “must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it ‘is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.'” Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. at 2009) (quoting Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. at 2007)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”). Under this standard, “substantial evidence is defined as ‘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, 486 F.3d at 241 (quoting Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994)). In deciding whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the court does “not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence or decide questions of credibility.” Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007); Rogers, 486 F.3d at 247 (“It is of course for the ALJ, and not the reviewing court, to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, including that of the claimant.”). Furthermore, the claimant “has the ultimate burden to establish an entitlement to benefits by proving the existence of a disability.” Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1181 (6th Cir. 1990).

         Although the substantial evidence standard is deferential, it is not trivial. The Court must “‘take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from [the] weight'” of the Commissioner's decision. TNS, Inc. v. NLRB, 296 F.3d 384, 395 (6th Cir. 2002) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 487 (1951)). Nevertheless, “if substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, this Court defers to that finding ‘even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion.'” Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 406 (quoting Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”). Finally, even if the ALJ's decision meets the substantial evidence standard, “‘a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the SSA fails to follow its own regulations and where that error prejudices a claimant on the merits or deprives the claimant of a substantial right.'” Rabbers, 582 F.3d at 651 (quoting Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007)).

         F. Analysis

         Plaintiff raises three issues. First, she argues that “the ALJ erred when she failed to find that Plaintiff's depression and anxiety were severe impairments in her Step Two analysis.” (DE 14 at 16-20.) Second, she contends that “the ALJ failed to create an accurate RFC assessment and therefore erroneously found work at Steps Four and Five.” (Id. at 20-23.) Third, she alleges that ...


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