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Shangle v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 7, 2018

DARLA SHANGLE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          Hon. Gordon J. Quist, J.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          ELLEN S. CARMODY, United States Magistrate Judge

         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) under Title II 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 Healthand 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. See42 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 Healthand 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 Healthand 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 39 years of age on her alleged disability date as well as the date her insured status expired. (PageID.199, 273, 815). She successfully completed high school and worked previously as a stock clerk and shipping clerk. (PageID.830-31). Plaintiff applied for benefits on September 9, 2010, alleging that she had been disabled since September 1, 2007, due to degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, bursitis, and irritable bowel disease. (PageID.199-205, 225, 273).

         Plaintiff's application was denied, after which time she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (PageID.134-97). On April 20, 2012, Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Michael Condon with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (PageID.76-132). In a written decision dated June 28, 2012, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim. (PageID.60-69). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's determination, rendering it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.40-44). Plaintiff thereafter initiated legal action in this Court challenging the denial of her claim for benefits. On March 31, 2015, the Honorable Gordon J. Quist reversed the ALJ's decision and remanded this matter for further administrative action. (PageID.928-40).

         On August 28, 2015, ALJ Condon conducted another administrative hearing at which testimony was offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (PageID.840-922). In a written decision dated October 9, 2015, ALJ Condon again denied Plaintiff's application for disability benefits. (PageID.812-32). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's determination, rendering it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.796-802). 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.815; see also, 42 U.S.C. § 423(c)(1)). Accordingly, to be eligible for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish that she became disabled prior to the expiration of her 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 her 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 she can satisfy her burden by demonstrating that her impairments are so severe that she is unable to perform her previous work, and cannot, considering her 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 her 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 through the date her insured status expired, Plaintiff suffered from: (1) degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; (2) left shoulder impingement and acromioclavicular arthritis status post arthroscopic surgery; (3) depression; (4) anxiety; and (5) a personality disorder, 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.815-18).

         With respect to Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined that as of the date Plaintiff's insured status expired, she retained the capacity to perform light work subject to the following limitations: (1) she could occasionally lift/carry 20 pounds and frequently lift/carry 10 pounds; (2) during an 8-hour workday, she could sit and stand/walk for 6 hours each; (3) she could frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps/stairs; (4) she could occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; (5) she could occasionally reach overhead with her left upper extremity; (6) she was limited to the performance of simple, routine work that involved making simple work-related decisions; and (7) she was able to tolerate routine workplace changes. (PageID.818).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform her 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, her 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. OBanner 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 ...


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