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Hubbell v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 19, 2018

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

          OPINION

          ELLEN S. CARMODY U.S. 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) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. The parties have agreed to proceed in this Court for all further proceedings, including an order of final judgment.

         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. The Commissioner has found that Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. For the reasons stated below, the Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

         STANDARDOFREVIEW

         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 Health and 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. See 42 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 Health and Human Services, 964 F.2d 524, 528 (6th Cir. 1992). 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 Health and 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). 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 51 years of age on her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.184). She possesses a ninth grade education and worked previously as a housekeeper. (PageID.65, 69-70, 215, 221-24). Plaintiff applied for benefits on June 7, 2014, alleging that she had been disabled since June 1, 2013, due to polycystic kidney disease, chronic back pain, restless leg syndrome, depression, and anxiety with panic attacks. (PageID.184-94, 214). Plaintiff's applications were denied, after which time she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (PageID.84-182).

         On February 1, 2016, Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Paul Jones with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (PageID.58-81). In a written decision dated February 18, 2016, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.45-52). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's determination, rendering it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.29-33). Plaintiff subsequently initiated this appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision.

         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, 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 found that Plaintiff experiences the following impairments: (1) benign right renal cyst; (2) kidney stone; (3) mild COPD/bronchitis/tobacco abuse; and (4) affective disorder. (PageID.47). The ALJ nevertheless denied Plaintiff's claim at step two on the ground that Plaintiff's impairments were not “severe.” An impairment can be considered not severe “only if it is a slight abnormality that minimally affects work ability regardless of age, education, and experience.” Higgs v. Bowen, 880 F.2d 860, 862 (6th Cir. 1988). While a claimant's burden at step two has been described as minimal, courts nevertheless recognize that “Congress has approved the threshold dismissal of claims obviously lacking medical merit.” Ibid.; see also, Hooper v. Commissioner of Social Security, 2017 WL 726663 at *4 (E.D. Mich., Jan. 25, 2017) (“the inquiry at step two functions as an administrative convenience to screen out claims that are totally groundless from a medical perspective”). A review of the medical evidence reveals that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.

         On April 26, 2013, Plaintiff reported that she was experiencing “moderate to severe” pain in her right knee. (PageID.388-89). A physical examination revealed “no erythema, effusion, laxity, mild tenderness at hamstring insertion, negative McMurray's, Lachman's, no pain with stress of MCL/LCL.” (PageID.389). Plaintiff was diagnosed with ...


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