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Stokes v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 30, 2018

SHERMAN STOKES, Plaintiff
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DKT. 15, 18)

          STEPHANIE DAWKINS DAVIS, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         A. Proceedings in this Court On September 29, 2016, plaintiff filed the instant suit seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's unfavorable decision disallowing benefits. (Dkt. 1). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 72.1(b)(3), this matter was referred to the undersigned for the purpose of reviewing the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiff's claim for disability benefits. (Dkt. 3). The parties consented to the undersigned magistrate judge's jurisdiction. (Dkt. 12, 13). This matter is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Dkt. 15, 18). Plaintiff also filed a reply in support of her motion. (Dkt. 19). Pursuant to notice, the Court held a hearing on the parties' cross-motions on December 19, 2017. (Dkt. 20).

         B. Administrative Proceedings

         Plaintiff filed the instant claims for period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on July 13, 2011, alleging that he became disabled on June 5, 2005. (Tr. 40). The claims were initially disapproved by the Commissioner on November 18, 2011. Id. Plaintiff requested a hearing and on February 20, 2013, plaintiff appeared with counsel before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Gregory Holiday, who considered the case de novo. (Tr. 95-135). In a decision dated April 15, 2013, ALJ Holiday issued a partially favorable decision, finding plaintiff to be disabled as of August 12, 2012, the date when his age category changed. (Tr. 35-56). Plaintiff requested a review of this decision and on October 16, 2014, the Appeals Council reviewed the decision and remanded it back to the ALJ to (1) obtain additional medical evidence, including a consultative examination and a medical source statement about what plaintiff can do despite his impairments, (2) give further consideration to plaintiff's RFC, and (3) obtain further vocational expert testimony. (Tr. 32-34). Plaintiff appeared at a hearing on March 12, 2015 with his counsel before ALJ Ena Weathers. (Tr. 62-94). ALJ Weathers issued the second decision on April 20, 2015, finding that plaintiff was not disabled at any time. (Tr. 8-25). The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when, after the review of additional exhibits, [1] the Appeals Council 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, the Court DENIES plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, GRANTS defendant's motion for summary judgment, and AFFIRMS the findings of the Commissioner.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1962 and was 49 years old on the alleged onset date. (Tr. 24). According to the second decision, plaintiff has past relevant work as a detention facility officer and a mail clerk. (Tr. 14). As explained more fully in the first decision, his work as a corrections officer was medium, semi-skilled work and his work as a mail clerk was light and unskilled. (Tr. 42). Additional past work was noted in the first decision, which was not discussed in the second decision; the reasons are not clear. Id.

         In considering plaintiff's claim, the ALJ applied the five-step disability analysis and found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (Tr. 14). At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff's osteoarthritis of the bilateral shoulders, status-post total left shoulder arthroplasty, glaucoma and presbyopia of the right eye, and obesity were “severe.” (Tr. 14). At step three, the ALJ found no evidence that plaintiff's individual or combination of impairments met or equaled one of the listings in the regulations. (Tr. 15). The ALJ concluded that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform a limited range of light work as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the claimant is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He is unable to kneel and crawl. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. He can occasionally reach overhead bilaterally and frequently finger bilaterally. The claimant cannot perform work that requires fine visual acuity in the right eye (unlimited visual acuity in the left). He must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards, including moving machinery, commercial driving, and work at unprotected heights. The claimant must have the ability to change from standing to a seated position, or vice versa, for 1-2 minutes every 1-2 hours, with no interference with work product. The claimant is limited to tasks without strict production demands.

(Tr. 15). At step four, though not expressly stated, it appears that the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work, given that the ALJ proceeded to step five. (Tr. 24). At step five, the ALJ denied plaintiff benefits because he found that plaintiff could perform a significant number of jobs available in the national economy. (Tr. 24-25).

         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. G ...


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