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Stango v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 15, 2018

ALAN STANGO, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          District Judge Robert H. Cleland

          RECOMMENDATION TO DENY PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DE 14) AND GRANT DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DE 15)

          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 15), and AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

         II. REPORT

         Plaintiff, Alan Stango, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his applications for social security disability insurance (DI) benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) 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 15) and the administrative record (DE 12).

         A. Background

         Plaintiff filed his applications for SSI and DI benefits on June 12, 2014, alleging that he has been disabled since April 8, 2011. (R. at 174-84.) Plaintiff's applications were denied, and he sought a de novo hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. at 82-101, 114-16.) ALJ Virginia Trzaskoma held a hearing on September 14, 2015, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (R. at 31-81.) The ALJ considered all of the evidence and determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act through the date of the decision. (R. at 17-26.) On December 27, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for rehearing. (R. at 1-4.) Thus, ALJ Trzaskoma's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff timely commenced the instant action on February 20, 2017. (DE 1.)

         B. Plaintiff's Medical History

         Plaintiff's combined medical records span the period from April 8, 2011 through June 10, 2015, and include complaints primarily of left leg and knee pain following a left tibial plateau fracture and surgical repair by open reduction internal fixation (ORIF) as well as meniscal repair after being hit by a car in April 2011. (R. at 265-441.) The 176 pages of medical records are comprised of hospital and treatment records and diagnostic testing, and will be discussed as necessary below.

         C. Hearing Testimony

         Plaintiff testified at the September 14, 2015 hearing before ALJ Trzaskoma, as did vocational expert Charles H. Mcbee. (See R. at 36-80.) This testimony will be discussed as necessary below.

         D. The Administrative Decision

         On October 28, 2015, ALJ Trzaskoma 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 April 8, 2011, the alleged onset date. (R. at 19.) At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: tibial plateau fracture, status-post open reduction internal fixation (ORIF) with meniscal repair; and posttraumatic arthritis. (R. at 19-20.) 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. Specifically, she found that, “The claimant's left leg impairment does not meet or medically equal [L]isting 1.02A or Listing 1.06 because the claimant is able to ambulate effectively as defined in Listing 1.00B2(b).” (R. at 20) (emphasis added). Prior to Step 4 of the sequential process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] to:

perform light work … except: [he] can lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; can push and pull as much as he can lift and carry; can sit up to six hours and stand/walk up to four hours each, in an eight hour workday; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; can occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl; and must avoid work environments with excessive vibration, moving machinery and unprotected heights.

(R. at 20-25.) At Step 4, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (R. at 25.) At Step 5, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (R. at 25-26.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from April 8, 2011 through the date of the decision. (R. at 26.)

         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 ...


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