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Murray v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 13, 2018




         This matter is presently before the Court on cross motions for summary judgment [docket entries 15 and 18]. Pursuant to E.D. Mich. LR 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 case for further proceedings.

         Plaintiff has brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to challenge defendant's final decision denying his application for Supplemental Security Income benefits. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing in August 2016 (Tr. 37-63) and issued a decision denying benefits in October 2016 (Tr. 13-24). This became defendant's final decision in June 2017 when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-3).

         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).

         On the alleged disability onset date, plaintiff was 59 years old. He has a high school education, two years of college, and work experience as a minister (Tr. 41). Plaintiff claims he has been disabled since February 2012 due to a back problem, hypertension, prostate cancer, and diverticulitis (Tr. 155). The ALJ found that plaintiff's severe impairments are “lower back pain with radiculopathy” and “status post prostate cancer” (Tr. 18). The ALJ further found that despite these impairments plaintiff is not disabled because he is able to perform his past work as a minister, as this work is within plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) for a limited range of light work.[1]

         Of plaintiff's various impairments, the one that is of potentially disabling severity is his lower back pain with radiculopathy. Plaintiff testified that he cannot perform his past work as a minister because this job required him to stand for several hours at a time (Tr. 60-61), but he now can stand only “about 30, 40 minutes” at a time (Tr. 51).

         The medical evidence regarding plaintiff's back impairment is summarized in the ALJ's decision (Tr. 20-22), and it need not be repeated here at length. In short, the evidence shows abnormalities in plaintiff's lumbar spine that could cause pain and numbness in plaintiff's lower back and right leg. An MRI of plaintiff's lumbar spine in August 2013 showed “[d]egenerative changes of the facet joints and bulging disc L4-L5 with mild compression to the thecal sac and compressing the proximal L5 nerve roots bilaterally” and “[b]road-based bulging disc and degenerative changes of the facet joints at ¶ 5-S1 . . . [with] some compression to the proximal S1 nerve root on the left” (Tr. 296). And EMG four months earlier showed “chronic, mild bilateral L5 radiculopathy” (Tr. 296). Plaintiff was diagnosed with “[r]adiculopathy lumbar L4-5, L5 S1 distribution” and “Lumbar Sponsylosis” (Tr. 296).

         An MRI of plaintiff's lumbar spine in April 2016 was interpreted as follows:

L4-5: Left greater than right facet degeneration is stable with unroofing of the disc space and anterolisthesis causing slight flattening of the thecal sac and minor left lateral recess stenosis which has worsened in the interval. There is moderate right greater than left foraminal narrowing which is unchanged.
L5-S1: Stable bilateral facet degenerative change with broad-based disc bulge and a left paracentral protrusion component which is abutting and mildly flattening the descending left L1 nerve root to a greater degree. There is no canal or right lateral recess narrowing. There is no foraminal stenosis.

(Tr. 391-92).

         While the record contains a great deal of medical evidence in the form of office notes and test results, none of the nurses or physicians who have treated plaintiff have expressed an opinion as to his functional limitations. Nor did defendant obtain such an opinion from an examining or non-examining consulting physician. Plaintiff argues that under these circumstances the case must be remanded because the ALJ may not make his own findings regarding functional limitations, as the ALJ is not a medical expert and he is not in a position to interpret raw medical data. Defendant disagrees, arguing that it is the ALJ's responsibility to determine plaintiff's RFC and “an ALJ is not required to seek ...

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