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Deiter v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 22, 2018




         In June of 2012, plaintiff Sarah Ann Deiter filed an application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits. (ECF No. 11-3, PageID.110). Plaintiff alleges that she suffers from problems associated with a thyroid nodule, family history of CAD, elevated AST (SGOT), hematochezia, abdominal pain, leukocytosis, tachycardia, sarcoidosis of the lung, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), hilar adenopathy, arthralgia, lumbar pain, intertrigo, elevated liver function tests, fibromyalgia, depression, vitamin D deficiency, anxiety, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, sleep apnea, manic episode without psychosis, insomnia, fatigue, and an ovarian cyst. Plaintiff asserts that these impairments cause her disability. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and plaintiff requested an administrative hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (ECF No. 116-118). ALJ Patrick Toal, held a hearing on November 13, 2014. (ECF No. 11-2, PageID.61-95).

         Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing. Plaintiff and vocational expert Emily Veith testified. Plaintiff was 40 years old at the time of the hearing. (PageID.65). Plaintiff lived with her two daughters, grandson, and her significant other. (PageID.67). She has a driver's license, but does not drive often. (PageID.68). Plaintiff can maintain her hygiene and prepare meals. (PageID.70-71). Most days, plaintiff can perform household chores such as washing dishes, dusting, sweeping, mopping, and laundry. (PageID.72). Plaintiff has trouble repetitively folding the laundry due to the required arm movement. Plaintiff is able to shop. During the day she listened to music and tries to do housework, but nothing really gets accomplished. (PageID.73). Plaintiff reads a book or does a crossword puzzles but has problems staying focused. (PageID.73-74). She takes care of her dogs. (PageID.78). Plaintiff has taken care of her grandson when he was younger, but cannot handle him anymore. (PageID.79). Plaintiff has trouble finishing chores due to pain from Fibromyalgia. (PageID.82). Plaintiff states that for one half a month she cannot perform any activities. (PageID.83). Plaintiff indicated that she was suffering from severe stomach and upper abdomen pain. (PageID.92-93). Prior testing was negative and Plaintiff was awaiting the results of her recent colonoscopy. (PageID.93-94). Plaintiff stated that she experienced numbness, weakness, and tingling in her limbs. (PageID.94).

         Plaintiff gets some relief from Klonopin, Cymbalta, amitriptyline, and Restoril. (PageID.76-77). Plaintiff uses a C-PAP, but not as often as she should. (PageID.78). She tries to take her doctor's advice and walk a little and stretch each day. (PageID.80). Plaintiff saw a rheumatologist who stated that there was nothing that could be done because she suffered with severe fibromyalgia and could not take any of the medications. Plaintiff's physician prescribed Cymbalta and narcotic pain medication. (PageID.87).

         The vocational expert Emily Veith testified that an individual with no work experience, who is unable to lift or carry more than 10 pounds frequently, 20 pounds occasionally, unable to stand or walk more than 6 hours, climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, crawl more than occasionally, climb stairs, kneel, crouch or crawl more than frequently, maintain attention and concentration to perform detailed tasks (limited to simple, routine, repetitive, low stress tasks with few job changes), limited problem solving or decision making, and unable to have more than occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors, and no contact with the public could perform jobs in the Michigan economy. (PageID.88-89). Vocational expert Veith testified that a person with those limitations could work as a housekeeper (approximately 9, 500 jobs in Michigan, 450, 000 jobs nationally), shirt presser (780 jobs in Michigan, 51, 000 jobs nationally), or hand packer (4, 000 jobs in Michigan, and 200, 000 jobs nationally). (PageID89-90). However, if that individual is limited to occasional use of the bilateral upper extremities for grasping, fingering and reaching overhead there would be no jobs that the individual would be able to perform. (PageID.91).

         The ALJ found that plaintiff could perform jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy given plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) and therefore concluded that plaintiff was not under a “disability” under the Social Security Act (20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g)). The ALJ's decision became the agency's final decision when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the agency's final decision denying her request for disability benefits. Plaintiff then filed this action.[1]

         “[R]eview of the ALJ's decision is limited to whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence.” Winslow v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 566 Fed. App'x 418, 420 (6th Cir. 2014) (quoting Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The findings of the ALJ are conclusive if they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is defined as more than a mere scintilla of evidence but “such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Jones v. Sec'y, Health & Human Servs., 945 F.2d 1365, 1369 (6th Cir. 1991). This Court is not permitted to try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence and cannot decide questions of credibility. Brainard v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 1989); see Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 475 (6th Cir. 2003) (noting the ALJ's decision cannot be overturned if sufficient evidence supports the decision regardless of whether evidence also supports a contradictory conclusion). This Court is required to examine the administrative record as a whole and affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence, even if this Court would have decided the matter differently. See Kinsella v. Schwikers, 708 F.2d 1058, 1059 (6th Cir. 1983); see also Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (holding that the court must affirm a Commissioner even if substantial evidence would support the opposite conclusion).

         The ALJ must employ a five-step sequential analysis to determine if plaintiff is under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act. Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004). If the ALJ determines plaintiff is or is not disabled under a step, the analysis ceases and plaintiff is declared as such. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). Steps four and five use the residual functional capacity assessment in evaluating the claim. Id. The ALJ determined that plaintiff was not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her June 27, 2012, application date, and that plaintiff had the severe impairments of fibromyalgia, hypertension, sarcoidosis, obesity, an affective disorder, an anxiety disorder, and a personality disorder. The ALJ noted that plaintiff has controlled diabetes, and non-severe impairments of the back, dental issues, thyroid nodule, hyperlipidemia, gastrointestinal issues, and sleep disorders. The ALJ found that plaintiffs' impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C. F. R. part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ determined that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work with additional limitations of: crawling, climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolds more than occasionally, stooping, kneeling, crouching or climbing ramps or stairs more than frequently, limited to simple, routine, repetitive and low stress tasks with few job changes and limited problem solving or decision making with no more than occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors, with no public contact. The ALJ found that plaintiff could perform unskilled light duty jobs such as a housekeeper (approximately 9, 500 jobs in Michigan, 450, 000 jobs nationally), shirt presser (780 jobs in Michigan, 51, 000 jobs nationally), or hand packager (4, 000 jobs in Michigan, and 200, 000 jobs nationally). This Court must affirm the ALJ's findings if sufficient evidence supports the decision even if evidence supports an alternative conclusion.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by granting little weight to treating physician Dr. Mary Myrick, some weight to the treating pulmonologist Dr. Ryan Hadley, and great weight to the State medical reviewer Dr. Joe DeLoach. Additionally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated her credibility. Plaintiff requests a remand to the Appeals Council for consideration of new material evidence.

         Under the regulations, an ALJ must weigh all medical opinions regardless of its source. 20 C.F.R. § 1527(c). The following factors should be considered when determining what weight to afford a medical opinion: “the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination, the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, supportability of the opinion, consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole, and the specialization of the treating source.” Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 1527(c)).

         An ALJ affords a treating physician's opinion controlling weight when the evidence and findings are consistent with the other substantial evidence on record. 20 C.F.R. § 1527(c)(2); see Miller . Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 815 F.3d 825, 836-837 (6th Cir. 2016). (noting the weight assigned must account for the (in)consistency “among the examining sources and the record as a whole” and also consider the factors under 20 C.F.R. § 1527). Only when the ALJ does not afford great weight to a treating source's opinion is the ALJ required to apply and conduct an analysis of the factors under (c)(2)(i) and (c)(2)(ii), and (c)(3) through (c)(6). Id. Moreover, an ALJ is not required to rely on medical opinions concluding that a person is, or is not, disabled since that is an issue reserved to the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 1527(d).

         “As a procedural requirement, the ALJ must also provide ‘good reasons' for discounting the weight to be given to a treating source's opinion.” Edwards v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 636 Fed.Appx. 645, 649 (6th Cir. 2016) (citing Gayheart v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 710 F.3d 365, 376 (6th Cir. 2013)). These reasons must be supported by the evidence and be noted with specificity “to ensure that the rule is applied and to permit meaningful review.” Id. (citing Gayheart, 710 F.3d at 376).

         In addition, “[s]tate agency medical consultants are considered experts and their opinions may be entitled to greater weight if their opinions are supported by the evidence.” Hoskins v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 106 Fed. App'x 412, 415 (6th Cir. 2004); see also Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 245 n.4 (6th Cir. 2007) (quoting SSR 96-6P) (“In appropriate circumstances, opinions from State agency medical and psychological consultants . . . may be entitled to greater weight than the opinions of treating or examining sources.”). Where the ALJ provides “good reasons” for discounting a treating physician's opinion, he was not required to afford less weight to the state agency source's opinions as long as it was supported by the evidence of record. See Helm v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 405 Fed. App'x 997, 1002 (6th Cir. 2011).

         In his decision, the ALJ provided the following reasons for affording weight to the opinions of Dr. Myrick, Dr. ...

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