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Sallah v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 23, 2018

CHRISTINE SALLAH, Plaintiff
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendants.

          Stephen J. Murphy United States District Judge.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DKT. 15, 17)

          STEPHANIE DAWKINS DAVIS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         A. Proceedings in this Court

         On November 18, 2016, plaintiff filed the instant suit seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's unfavorable decision disallowing benefits. (Dkt. 1). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 72.1(b)(3), this matter was referred to the undersigned for the purpose of reviewing the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiff's claim disability benefits. (Dkt. 2). This matter is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Dkt. 15, 17). Plaintiff also filed a reply in support of her motion. (Dkt. 18).

         B. Administrative Proceedings

         Plaintiff filed the instant claims for period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on July 5, 2013, alleging that she became disabled on April 5, 2013. (Tr. 19). The claims were initially disapproved by the Commissioner on September 9, 2013. Id. Plaintiff requested a hearing and on June 8, 2015, plaintiff appeared with counsel before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Yasmin Elias, who considered the case de novo. (Tr. 38-83). In a decision dated September 22, 2015, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 16-29). Plaintiff requested a review of this decision and on September 16, 2016, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when, after the review of additional exhibits, [1] the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-7); 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 GRANTED, that defendant's motion for summary judgment be DENIED, that the findings of the Commissioner be REVERSED and that this matter be REMANDED for further proceedings under Sentence Four.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1979 and was 33 years old on the alleged onset date. (Tr. 28). Plaintiff has past relevant work as a certified nursing assistant, which carries a medium exertional level and is classified as semi-skilled work. (Tr. 27). She claims disability due to problems with her back, both knees, anxiety and asthma. (Tr. 84). In considering plaintiff's claim, the ALJ applied the five-step disability analysis and found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (Tr. 21). At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff's osteoarthritis/degenerative joint disease of the knees, anxiety, affective disorder, and alcohol/substance abuse disorder were “severe” within the meaning of the second sequential step. (Tr. 22). At step three, the ALJ found no evidence that plaintiff's combination of impairments met or equaled one of the listings in the regulations. (Tr. 22-24). At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work. (Tr. 27). The ALJ concluded that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform a limited range of light work as follows:

…[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except the claimant can only occasionally climb ramps or stairs, or kneel, crouch or crawl. The claimant may never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant may frequently balance with the use of a hand-held assistive device. The claimant is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks with only occasional interaction with the public or coworkers.

(Tr. 24). At step five, the ALJ denied plaintiff benefits because plaintiff could perform a significant number of jobs available in the national economy. (Tr. 28-29).

         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 evidence without directly addressing in his written decision every piece of evidence submitted by a party.”) (internal citation marks omitted); see also Van Der Maas v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 198 Fed.Appx. 521, 526 (6th Cir. 2006).

         B. Governing Law

         The “[c]laimant bears the burden of proving his entitlement to benefits.” Boyes v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 46 F.3d 510, 512 (6th Cir. 1994); accord, Bartyzel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 74 Fed.Appx. 515, 524 (6th Cir. 2003). There are several benefits programs under the Act, including the Disability Insurance Benefits Program (DIB) of Title II (42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq.) and the Supplemental Security Income Program (SSI) of Title XVI (42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq.). Title II benefits are available to qualifying wage earners who become disabled prior to the expiration of their insured status; Title XVI benefits are available to poverty stricken adults and children who become disabled. F. Bloch, Federal Disability Law and Practice § 1.1 (1984). While the two programs have different eligibility requirements, “DIB and SSI are available only for those who have a ‘disability.'” Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007).

         “Disability” means:

inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.

         42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (DIB); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a) (SSI).

         The Commissioner's regulations provide that disability is to be determined through the application of a five-step sequential analysis:

Step One: If the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Two: If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, that “significantly limits ... physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” ...

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