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Eaton v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 21, 2018

LARRY EATON JR., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

         This is 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. Section 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. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), authorizing United States Magistrate Judges to submit proposed findings of fact and recommendations for disposition of social security appeals, the undersigned recommends that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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). Substantial 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.

         PROCEDURAL POSTURE

         Plaintiff was 41 years of age on his alleged disability onset date. (PageID.153, 891). He possesses an eleventh grade education and worked previously as an assembler. (PageID.952, 983). Plaintiff applied for benefits on September 7, 2011, alleging that he had been disabled since December 31, 2007, due to diabetes, HIV, depression, ADHD, hypertension, obesity, and periodontal disease. (PageID.153-68, 201, 891).

         Plaintiff's application was denied, after which time he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (PageID.82-151). On April 1, 2013, Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Nicholas Ohanesian with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (PageID.82-151). In a written decision dated June 27, 2013, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled because he could perform his past relevant work. (PageID.38-47). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's determination, rendering it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.28-32). The undersigned subsequently vacated the Commissioner's decision on the ground that Plaintiff's past relevant work, which the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could still perform, did not constitute substantial gainful activity and, therefore, could not serve as the basis to deny Plaintiff's claim. (PageID.1018-29).

         On May 16, 2016, ALJ Ohanesian conducted another administrative hearing at which testimony was offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (PageID.944-93). In a written decision dated July 14, 2016, the ALJ again denied Plaintiff's application on the ground that there existed a significant number of jobs which Plaintiff could perform despite his impairments. (PageID.889-903). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's determination, rendering it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.879-84). Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision.

         Plaintiff's insured status expired on December 31, 2007. (PageID.891). Accordingly, to be eligible for DIB benefits, Plaintiff must establish that he became disabled prior to the expiration of his insured status. See 42 U.S.C. § 423; Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1182 (6th Cir. 1990).

         ANALYSIS OF THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The 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).[1] 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 his residual functional capacity. See 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1545, 416.945.

         The burden of establishing the right to benefits rests squarely on Plaintiff's shoulders, and he can satisfy his burden by demonstrating that his impairments are so severe that he is unable to perform his previous work, and cannot, considering his 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 of the sequential evaluation process, Plaintiff bears the burden of proof through step four of the procedure, the point at which his 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).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from: (1) type-II diabetes mellitus; (2) hypertension; (3) hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol); (4) obesity; (5) HIV virus positive; (6) obstructive sleep apnea; (7) cognitive disorder; (8) mood disorder; (9) degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; (10) bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome with status post release procedures; (11) COPD; (12) osteoarthritis; (13) plantar fasciitis; (14) neuropathy; and (15) dementia, 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. (PageID.891).

         With 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) he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (2) he can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; (3) he can experience no more than frequent exposure to extremes of heat or cold, humidity, or pulmonary irritants; and (4) he is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. (PageID.897).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform his 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, his limitations notwithstanding. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. While the ALJ is not required to question a vocational expert on this issue, Aa 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.

         The vocational expert testified that there existed more than 2, 000, 000 jobs in the national economy which an individual with Plaintiffs RFC could perform, such limitations notwithstanding. (PageID.983-85). This represents a significant number of jobs. See Born v. Secy 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 also testified that if Plaintiff were further limited to sedentary work, there still existed approximately 670, 000 jobs in the national economy which Plaintiff could perform consistent with his RFC. (PageID.987-88). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits.

         I. Plaintiff does not Satisfy the Listings

         The Listing of Impairments, detailed in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, identifies various impairments which, if present to the severity detailed therein, result in a finding that the claimant is disabled. Plaintiff argues that he satisfies Section 12.07 (Somatoform Disorders) and Section 14.00 (Immune System Disorders) of the Listings. Plaintiff bears the burden to demonstrate that he satisfies the requirements of a listed impairment. See Kirby v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2002 WL 1315617 at *1 (6th Cir., June 14, 2002). An impairment satisfies a listing, however, “only when it manifests the specific findings described in all of the medical criteria for that ...


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