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Reed-Barnes v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 2, 2018

NICOLE MICHELLE REED-BARNES, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS

          BERNARD A. FRIEDMAN SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is presently before the Court on defendant's motion for summary judgment [docket entry 21]. Pursuant to E.D. Mich. LR 7.1(f)(2), the Court shall decide this motion without a hearing. For the reasons stated below, the Court shall deny defendant's motion and remand the matter for further proceedings.

         Plaintiff has brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to challenge defendant's decision denying her applications for Social Security disability insurance and Supplemental Security Income benefits. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing in January 2017 (Tr. 46-76) and issued a decision denying benefits in February 2017 (Tr. 25-41). This became defendant's final decision in May 2017 when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-3).

         Under § 405(g), the issue before the Court is whether defendant'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 Fed.Appx. 636, 640-41 (6th Cir. 2013).

         At the time of the ALJ's decision, plaintiff was 46 years old (Tr. 51). She has a high school education, some college, and work experience as a cleaner, medical assistant, automobile assembler, and forklift driver (Tr. 54-57, 278). Plaintiff claims she has been disabled since September 2015 due to Charcot feet, [1] pancreatitis, right hand numbness, depression, and asthma (Tr. 213).

         The ALJ found that plaintiff's severe impairments are “degenerative joint disease, acute pancreatitis, obstructive sleep apnea, obesity, adjustment disorder, and major depressive disorder” (Tr. 30) and that her non-severe impairments are hypertension, congestive heart failure, edema, asthma, and hypothyroidism (Tr. 30-31). He found that plaintiff cannot perform any of her past work but that she has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a limited range of sedentary work.[2] 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, sedentary jobs such as bench assembler, inserter, or parts checker (Tr. 73). The ALJ cited this testimony to support his conclusion that work exists in significant numbers that plaintiff could perform (Tr. 40).

         Having reviewed the administrative record and defendant's summary judgment motion, the Court concludes that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because his RFC evaluation of plaintiff is flawed. Since the ALJ's hypothetical question incorporated a flawed RFC evaluation, it failed to describe plaintiff in all relevant respects and the VE's testimony given in response thereto cannot be used to carry defendant's burden to prove the existence of a significant number of jobs that plaintiff is capable of performing.

         The ALJ's RFC evaluation is flawed for the following reasons. First, the ALJ failed to consider the side effects of plaintiff's medications. The record indicates that plaintiff takes, or at various times has taken, a large number of medications, including Amitriptyline, Anaprox, Brintellix, Lasix, Lopressor, Tylenol 3, Pioglitazone, Ergocalciferol, Carvedilol, Metformin, Amiloride HCL, Hydralazine, Omeprazole, Paroxetine, Xarelto, Klonopin, Clonidine, Acetaminophen-Hydrocodone, Ambien, Pantoprozole (Protonix), Prozac, Lovenox, Lyrica, Coreg, Qvar, Stiolto, Norco, Pregabalin, Sertraline, Alprazolam, Bismuth subsalicylate, and Zoloft (Tr. 216, 274-75, 277, 284, 308, 316, 421, 429, 561, 643-44, 722), several of which have known side effects. At the hearing, plaintiff testified that some of her medications make her feel drowsy, tired, and disoriented (Tr. 52-54). On her function report, plaintiff indicated that some of her medications make her feel sleepy and lightheaded (Tr. 239).

         The ALJ's failure to make any findings as to this issue is an error requiring remand, as the Sixth Circuit has held that the ALJ must evaluate “[t]he type, dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of any medication” as part of the process of determining the extent to which side effects impair a claimant's capacity to work.[3] Keeton v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 583 Fed.Appx. 515, 532 (6th Cir. 2014) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(c)(3)(i)-(vi)). Further, hypothetical questions to vocational experts must account for medication side effects. See White v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 312 Fed.Appx. 779, 789-90 (6th Cir. 2009). On remand, the ALJ must determine which medications plaintiff was taking during the relevant time period; make findings as to the nature and severity of these medications' side effects, if any; and revise his RFC assessment and his hypothetical question(s) to the VE, as appropriate.

         Second, the RFC evaluation is flawed because the ALJ neglected to make required findings concerning the effect, if any, of plaintiff's obesity on her other impairments. Defendant's regulations consider a person with a body-mass index (“BMI”) of 30 or higher to be obese. See SSR 02-1p. The ALJ must consider a disability claimant's obesity at all steps of the sequential process.

         See id., Policy Interpretation ¶ 3. Further,

[o]besity is a medically determinable impairment that is often associated with disturbance of the musculoskeletal system, and disturbance of this system can be a major cause of disability in individuals with obesity. The combined effects of obesity with musculoskeletal impairments can be greater than the effects of each of the impairments considered separately. Therefore, when determining whether an individual with obesity has a listing-level impairment or combination of impairments, and when assessing a claim at other steps of the sequential evaluation process, including ...

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