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Pickett v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 16, 2018

COURTNEY ELIZABETH HALL PICKETT, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR REMAND

          BERNARD A. FRIEDMAN SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is presently before the Court on plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and defendant's motion for remand [docket entries 13 and 15]. Pursuant to E.D. Mich. LR 7.1(f)(2), the Court shall decide these motions without a hearing. For the reasons stated below, the Court shall grant both motions and remand the case for further proceedings.

         Plaintiff has brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to challenge defendant's decision denying her application for Social Security disability insurance benefits. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing in July 2016 (Tr. 34-65) and issued a decision denying benefits in September 2016 (Tr. 17-28). This became defendant's final decision in July 2017 when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-3).

         Under § 405(g), the issue before the Court is whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. As the Sixth Circuit has explained, the Court

must affirm the Commissioner's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence and the Commissioner employed the proper legal standard. White, 572 F.3d at 281 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)); Elam ex rel. Golay v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 348 F.3d 124, 125 (6th Cir. 2003); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Kyle, 609 F.3d at 854 (quoting Lindsley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 560 F.3d 601, 604 (6th Cir. 2009)). Where the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be upheld even if the record might support a contrary conclusion. Smith v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 893 F.2d 106, 108 (6th Cir. 1989). However, a substantiality of evidence evaluation does not permit a selective reading of the record. “Substantiality of the evidence must be based upon the record taken as a whole. Substantial evidence is not simply some evidence, or even a great deal of evidence. Rather, the substantiality of evidence must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 388 (6th Cir. 1984) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

Brooks v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 531 F. App'x 636, 640-41 (6th Cir. 2013).

         At the time of the ALJ's decision, plaintiff was 55 years old (Tr. 41). She has a high school education, “some college, ” and work experience as a preschool teacher (Tr. 41, 318). Plaintiff claims she has been disabled since January 2013 due to bipolar disorder, PTSD, personality disorder, high blood pressure, and carpal tunnel syndrome (Tr. 282, 317).

         The ALJ found that plaintiff's severe impairments are “left carpal tunnel syndrome, schizoaffective disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and history of substance and alcohol dependence” and that her hypertension and diabetes are non-severe (Tr. 22). The ALJ found that plaintiff cannot perform her past work (Tr. 27), but that she has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)

to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant could perform frequent fingering with the left upper extremity. The claimant would be limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production involving only simple work related changes with only simple work related decisions with few, if any, workplace changes. She would be limited to no interaction with the general public and occasional interaction with coworkers.

(Tr. 24). A vocational expert (“VE”) testified in response to a hypothetical question that a person of plaintiff's age, education, and work experience, and who has this RFC, could perform certain unskilled medium-level jobs such as cleaner, hand packager, or “picker packer” (Tr. 60-61). The ALJ cited this testimony as evidence that work exists in significant numbers that plaintiff could perform and concluded that she is not disabled (Tr. 28).

         Having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefs, the Court concludes that the ALJ's decision in this matter is not supported by substantial evidence because (1) the decision does not explain how the ALJ arrived at the conclusion that plaintiff's condition has improved since her last application, which was denied on the grounds that she has the RFC to do light work; and (2) his RFC assessment of plaintiff is flawed, and this flawed RFC assessment was incorporated into the hypothetical question put to the VE.

         Regarding the first issue, ALJ Holiday found in December 2012 that plaintiff was not disabled because she had the RFC to do light work with limitations on the use of her left arm and hand, i.e., occasional overhead reaching and handling and frequent fine manipulation.[1] In the instant action, ALJ Rabaut found in September 2016 that plaintiff has the RFC for a “full range of work at all exertional levels” with the only limitation on the use of her left arm and hand being that she “could perform frequent fingering” (Tr. 24). That is, ALJ Holiday found in 2012 that plaintiff was limited to “lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds, ” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) (defining light work), and that she could only occasionally reach her left arm overhead, while ALJ Rabaut found in 2016 that plaintiff can work “at all exertional levels” with no restriction on overhead reaching but with the same limitation on manipulating/fingering in her left hand. “All exertional levels” would include even very heavy work, which “involves lifting objects weighing more than 100 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing 50 pounds or more.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(e) (defining very heavy work). Medium work “involves lifting no more than 50 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 25 pounds.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c).

         ALJ Rabaut acknowledged that under Drummond v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 126 F.3d 837 (6th Cir. 1997), “[t]he prior finding concerning the claimant's residual functional capacity is binding absent evidence of an improvement or change in condition since the prior hearing” (Tr. 20).[2] Despite this acknowledgment, ALJ Rabaut offered no explanation as to how he arrived at his finding “that the evidence of record shows that there has been a change in the claimant's condition since the prior decision” (Tr. 20). Moreover, to the extent “there has been a change in the claimant's condition, ” the change appears to have been for the worse, not the better. Since ALJ Holiday's decision, plaintiff has been diagnosed with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome (“CTS”), which ALJ Rabaut included among plaintiff's severe impairments (Tr. 22). Plaintiff wears a brace on her left wrist (Tr. 393, 428), her grip strength in her left hand is reduced (Tr. 432), and her primary care physician has referred her to a “hand surgeon for further evaluation and treatment” (Tr. 729). Additionally, plaintiff testified that her “hands swell up, they get numb” (Tr. 45), testimony the ALJ did not address. ALJ Rabaut does not explain how a person with bilateral CTS - much less a 55-year old, 155-pound woman (Tr. 750) who has this impairment - could be expected to lift the weight required by work at “all exertional levels” (Tr. 24) or at the medium level (Tr. 28). Nor, as required by Drummond and as defendant concedes in her motion for remand, does he explain how, despite this severe impairment that has arisen since ALJ Holiday limited plaintiff to light work, he concluded that plaintiff's condition has improved, such that she is now able to do heavier work than before. It is not enough for the ALJ to simply state Drummond's requirement. On remand, the ALJ must apply it to the facts of this case and, if he again finds that plaintiff's condition has improved, articulate a reasoned, record-based explanation for this conclusion.

         Even if ALJ Rabaut were not bound by ALJ Holiday's earlier decision, ALJ Rabaut's RFC assessment lacks substantial evidence support for other reasons as well. First, he failed to consider the side effects of plaintiff's medications. The record shows that plaintiff takes, or at various times has taken, a large number of medications, including Amlodopine, Atenolol, Hydrocodone, Methacarbamol, Prozac, Risperidone, Norvasc, Vicodin, Robaxin, Resperdal, Tenorectic, Seroquel, Desyrel, Hydrochlorothiazide, Zyprexa, Abilify, and Zocor (Tr. 319, 340, 393, 404, 430, 436, 439, 585, 686, 725), several of which have known side effects. Indeed, ...


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