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Nichols v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 29, 2018



          MARIANNE O. BATTANI, United States District Judge.


         Before the Court are the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security's objections (Dkt. 21) to Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Stafford's January 25, 2018 Report and Recommendation (“R & R”) (Dkt. 20). The R & R recommends that the Court grant Plaintiff Karen Denise Nichols' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 17), deny the Defendant Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 18), and remand this matter for further administrative proceedings pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons discussed below, the Court OVERRULES Defendant's objections and ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge's R & R in its entirety.


         Neither party objects to the Magistrate Judge's summary of the background facts concerning Plaintiff's application for Social Security benefits and her medical history. Accordingly, the Court adopts these unchallenged portions of the R & R.


         A district court must conduct a de novo review of any portion of a magistrate judge's R & R to which a party objects. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The district court “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The requirement of de novo review “is a statutory recognition that Article III of the United States Constitution mandates that the judicial power of the United States be vested in judges with life tenure.” United States v. Shami, 754 F.2d 670, 672 (6th Cir. 1985). Accordingly, Congress enacted 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) to “insure[ ] that the district judge would be the final arbiter” of matters referred to a magistrate judge. Flournoy v. Marshall, 842 F.2d 875, 878 (6th Cir. 1988).

         The Court must affirm the decision of the Defendant Commissioner so long as “it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.” Rogers v. Commissioner of Social Security, 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence is defined as 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 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, “it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently, and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion.” Cutlip v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted).

         When determining whether the Defendant Commissioner's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, the Court confines its examination to the administrative record considered as a whole. Wyatt v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). There is no requirement, however, that either the Commissioner or this Court must discuss every piece of evidence in the record. Kornecky v. Commissioner of Social Security, No. 04-2171, 167 F. App'x 496, 508 (6th Cir. Feb. 9, 2006). Further, this Court does 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).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Defendant's First Objection

         The Defendant Commissioner has lodged two objections to the R & R. First, Defendant takes issue with the Magistrate Judge's determination that the assessment by the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) of Plaintiff's back impairment and resulting impact on her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is not supported by substantial evidence. In arriving at this conclusion, the Magistrate Judge observed that the ALJ's inquiry must rest on the record as a whole rather than “fragments of the evidence, ” and “must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from [the] weight” of the evidence pointing toward a particular outcome. (R & R at 8-9 (quoting Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 388 (6th Cir. 1984)).) In the Magistrate Judge's view, the ALJ's decision here fell short of this standard, as the ALJ cited only a small subset of the record for the proposition that Plaintiff exhibited “full strength bilaterally with a normal range of motion on multiple physical exams, ” (Admin. Record at 24), while making no mention of “substantially more evidence” in the record that reflected repeated findings of back impairments, limitations, and abnormalities in numerous visits to Plaintiff's treating physicians, (R & R at 9-10).

         In challenging this conclusion, Defendant argues that the Magistrate Judge improperly “transformed the ALJ's duty to consider all of the evidence in the record[] into an obligation to discuss all of the evidence of record, ” and then “compound[ed] that error” by recommending reversal of the ALJ's decision “simply because some evidence contradicted the ALJ's findings.” (Dkt. 21, Defendant's Objections at 1-2.) As noted earlier, neither the Commissioner nor this Court is obligated to discuss every piece of evidence in the record, Kornecky, 167 F. App'x at 508, and Defendant correctly observes that the ALJ need not specifically mention a particular item of evidence in order to demonstrate that it was considered, see Daniels v. Commissioner of Social Security, No. 04-5709, 152 F. App'x 485, 489 (6th Cir. Oct. 24, 2005). Moreover, Defendant rightly points out that even if the evidence that the ALJ neglected to mention might support a different conclusion, and even if this Court might decide the matter differently upon independent review of the record, the ALJ's decision nonetheless must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence. Cutlip, 25 F.3d at 286.

         The dispositive question here, then, is whether - as Defendant contends - the ALJ properly considered the record as a whole in arriving at a decision that is supported by substantial evidence, or whether - as Plaintiff maintains and the Magistrate Judge concluded - the ALJ impermissibly relied on only fragments of the record that fall short of providing substantial evidentiary support for his assessment of ...

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