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Amr v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

February 26, 2018

BRENDA AMR, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER ON CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DKT. 18, 19)

          Stephanie Dawkins Davis United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         A. Proceedings in this Court

         On February 3, 2017, plaintiff Brenda Amr 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 Thomas L. Ludington referred this matter to the undersigned for the purpose of reviewing the Commissioner's unfavorable decision denying plaintiff's claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Dkt. 4). On April 18, 2017, the parties filed a notice of consent to this Magistrate Judge's authority, which was signed by Judge Ludington on May 15, 2017. (Dkt. 15, 16). This matter is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Dkt. 16, 18). A hearing on the motions was held November 21, 2017. (Dkt. 21).

         B. Administrative Proceedings

         Plaintiff filed the instant claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on December 9, 2013. (Tr. 13).[1] The claim was initially disapproved by the Commissioner on March 4, 2014. (Id.). Plaintiff requested a hearing and on September 15, 2015, plaintiff appeared with counsel before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Richard Sasena, who considered the case de novo. (Id.). In a decision dated November 17, 2015, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 26). Plaintiff requested a review of this decision. (Tr. 9). The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council, on December 19, 2016, denied plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-5); Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 543-44 (6th Cir. 2004).

         For the reasons set forth below, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is DENIED, and Defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED, and the findings of the Commissioner are AFFIRMED.

         II. ALJ FINDINGS

         Plaintiff, born in 1961, was 44 years old on the alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 55). Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on June 30, 2010. (Tr. 15). Plaintiff has past relevant work as a credit processor. (Tr. 24). The ALJ applied the five-step disability analysis and found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of January 1, 2006, through her date last insured (“DLI”) of June 30, 2010. (Id.). At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff's arthritis, diabetes mellitus type 2 (“diabetes”), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”) were “severe” within the meaning of the second sequential step. (Id.). The ALJ also found several nonservere impairments, meaning they were found to cause no more than a minimal limitation of physical or mental ability to do basic work activities or would not last 12 months, including: obesity, a fatty liver, hypothyroidism, high blood pressure, varicose veins, heart condition, vitamin D insufficiency, carpal tunnel syndrome, hearing loss, fibromyalgia and degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 16). 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. (Id. at 18).

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

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant could perform occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. She should have avoided concentrated exposure to vibrating tools.
The claimant needed to change positions after every 15 minutes or so.

(Id. at 20). At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was able to perform past relevant work as a credit processor. (Id. at 24). The ALJ thus determined plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at 26).

         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 of Title II (42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq.) and the Supplemental Security Income Program 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); see also 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, ” benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Three: If plaintiff is not performing substantial gainful activity, has a severe impairment that is expected to last for at least twelve months, and the severe impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the regulations, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled regardless of age, education or work experience.
Step Four: If the claimant is able to perform his or her past relevant work, benefits are denied ...

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