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Hatton v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 14, 2018

DEBORAH L. HATTON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          Terrence G. Berg United States District Judge.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DKT. 17, 19)

          STEPHANIE DAWKINS DAVIS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         A. Proceedings in this Court

         On December 27, 2016, plaintiff Deborah Hatton filed the instant suit. (Dkt. 1). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 72.1(b)(3), District Judge Terrence G. Berg referred this matter to the undersigned for the purpose of reviewing the Commissioner's unfavorable decision denying plaintiff's claim for period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Dkt. 4). This matter is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Dkt. 17, 19).

         B. Administrative Proceedings

         Plaintiff filed the instant claim for period of disability and disability insurance benefits on February 25, 2014. (Tr. 15).[1] The claim was initially disapproved by the Commissioner on May 12, 2014. (Id.). Plaintiff requested a hearing and on December 8, 2015, plaintiff appeared with counsel before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Timothy C. Scallen, who considered the case de novo. (Id.). In a decision dated January 6, 2016, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 23). Plaintiff requested a review of this decision. (Tr. 11). The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council, on November 4, 2016, denied plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1); Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 543-44 (6th Cir. 2004).

         For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned RECOMMENDS that plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be DENIED, and that defendant's motion for summary judgment be GRANTED, and that the findings of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

         II. ALJ'S FINDINGS

         Plaintiff, born in 1952, was 59 years of age on the alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 21). Plaintiff has past relevant work as a cleaner and auto body estimator. (Tr. 21). The ALJ applied the five-step analysis and found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 1, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 17). At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff's hyperopia and vitreous floaters were “severe” within the meaning of the second sequential step. (Id.). However, at step three, the ALJ found no evidence that plaintiff's impairments either singly or in combination met or medically equaled one of the listings in the regulations. (Tr. 19).

         Thereafter, the ALJ assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: no climbing of ropes, ladders or scaffolds; no exposure to unprotected heights and moving machinery; and no work requiring fine visual acuity jobs.

(Tr. 19). At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. 21). At step five, the ALJ denied plaintiff benefits because he found that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 21).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         In enacting the social security system, Congress created a two-tiered system in which the administrative agency handles claims, and the judiciary merely reviews the agency determination for exceeding statutory authority or for being arbitrary and capricious. Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521 (1990). The administrative process itself is multifaceted in that a state agency makes an initial determination that can be appealed first to the agency itself, then to an ALJ, and finally to the Appeals Council. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137 (1987). If relief is not found during this administrative review process, the claimant may file an action in federal district court. Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 537 (6th Cir. 1986).

         This Court has original jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review under this statute is limited in that the court “must affirm the Commissioner's conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.” Longworth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). In deciding whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, “we do 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); Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). “It is of course for the ALJ, and not the reviewing court, to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, including that of the claimant.” Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 247 (6th Cir. 2007); Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 475 (6th Cir. 2003) (an “ALJ is not required to accept a claimant's subjective complaints and may . . . consider the credibility of a claimant when making a determination of disability.”); Cruse v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 502 F.3d 532, 542 (6th Cir. 2007) (the “ALJ's credibility determinations about the claimant are to be given great weight, particularly since the ALJ is charged with observing the claimant's demeanor and credibility.”) (quotation marks omitted); Walters, 127 F.3d at 531 (“Discounting credibility to a certain degree is appropriate where an ALJ finds contradictions among medical reports, claimant's testimony, and other evidence.”). “However, the ALJ is not free to make credibility determinations based solely upon an ‘intangible or intuitive notion about an individual's credibility.'” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 247, quoting Soc. Sec. Rul. 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, *4.

         If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Therefore, this Court may not reverse the Commissioner's decision merely because it disagrees or because “there exists in the record substantial evidence to support a different conclusion.” McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006); Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (en banc). Substantial evidence is “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; Jones, 336 F.3d at 475. “The substantial evidence standard presupposes that there is a ‘zone of choice' within which the Commissioner may proceed without interference from the courts.” Felisky v. Bowen, 35 F.3d 1027, 1035 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted), citing, Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545.

         The scope of this Court's review is limited to an examination of the record only. Bass, 499 F.3d at 512-13; Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 357 (6th Cir. 2001). When reviewing the Commissioner's factual findings for substantial evidence, a reviewing court must consider the evidence in the record as a whole, including that evidence which might subtract from its weight. Wyatt v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992). “Both the court of appeals and the district court may look to any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the Appeals Council.” Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 535 (6th Cir. 2001). There is no requirement, however, that either the ALJ or the reviewing court must discuss every piece of evidence in the administrative record. Kornecky v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 167 Fed.Appx. 496, 508 (6th Cir. 2006) (“[a]n ALJ can consider all the ...


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