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Seelye v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 1, 2018

RUTH A. SEELYE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          DISTRICT JUDGE, GERSHWIN A. DRAIN

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DOCS. 14, 15)

          PATRICIA T. MORRIS, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. REPORT

         A. Introduction and Procedural History

         This is an action for judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Ruth Seelye's claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits under Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. (Doc. 1). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), E.D. Mich. LR 72.1(b)(3), and by Notice of Reference, this case was referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge. (Doc. 4). The matter is currently before the court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 14, 15).

         Plaintiff was born on July 15, 1971, making her 42 years old when she filed her initial application for SSI on January 11, 2014. (Tr. 157-61). Plaintiff had filed three previous SSI applications-in January 2007, June 2008, and September 2010-none of which she appealed from the initial denial. (Tr. 68). After the Commissioner denied her most recent claim, Plaintiff requested a hearing, (Tr. 98-100), which was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) David Bruce, (Tr. 34-66). Ultimately, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability during the relevant time period, (Tr. 9-31), and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-8). This action followed.

         B. Standard of Review

         The district court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The district court's review is restricted to determining whether the “Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.” Sullivan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 595 Fed.Appx. 502, 506 (6th Cir. 2014) (internal citations omitted). 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 v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007) (internal quotations omitted).

         The court must examine the administrative record as a whole, and may consider any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the ALJ. See Walker v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 884 F.2d 241, 245 (6th Cir. 1989). The court will not “try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor decide questions of credibility.” Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). 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.” Id. at 286 (internal citations omitted).

         C. Framework for Disability Determinations

         Under the Act, “DIB and SSI are available only for those who have a ‘disability.'” Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). “Disability” means the inability

to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than [twelve] months.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (DIB); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a) (SSI). The Commissioner's regulations provide that disability is to be determined through the application of a five-step sequential analysis:

(i) At the first step, we consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled. . . .
(ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement . . . or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled. . . .
(iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled. . . .
(iv) At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled. . . .
(v) At the fifth and last step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your age, education, and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you cannot make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are disabled.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. See also Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001). “Through step four, the claimant bears the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by her impairments and the fact that she is precluded from performing her past relevant work.” Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). A claimant must establish a medically determinable physical or mental impairment (expected to last at least twelve months or result in death) that rendered her unable to engage in substantial gainful activity. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The burden transfers to the Commissioner if the analysis reaches the fifth step without a finding that the claimant is not disabled. Combs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 459 F.3d 640, 643 (6th Cir. 2006). At the fifth step, the Commissioner is required to show that “other jobs in significant numbers exist in the national economy that [the claimant] could perform given her RFC [residual functional capacity] and considering relevant vocational factors.” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), (g)).

         D. ALJ Findings

         Following the five-step sequential analysis, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since January 11, 2014, the date her application was filed. (Tr. 25). First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date of January 11, 2014. (Tr. 14). Next, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, carpal tunnel syndrome, and obesity. (Id.). Plaintiff did not, however, have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. (Tr. 15). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except for frequent handling and fingering, bilaterally, as opposed to constantly. The claimant is also limited to performing simple tasks; making simple work related decisions; and having frequent contact with co-workers and supervisors, but no more than occasional contact with the public. She should avoid all exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and moving, mechanical parts and/or machinery; and no commercial driving.

(Tr. 17). Plaintiff had no past relevant work, but the ALJ found that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs that Plaintiff could perform existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 24).

         E. Administrative Record

         1. Medical Evidence

         The court has thoroughly reviewed Plaintiff's medical record. In lieu of summarizing her medical history here, the court will make reference and provide citations to the record as necessary in its discussion of the parties' arguments.

         2. Application Reports and Administrative Hearing

         i. Plaintiff's Function Report

         Plaintiff completed a function report on January 31, 2014. (Tr. 205). She described how her ability to work was limited because she could “hardly move” when she woke up every day, and she had severe pain in her neck, back, legs, and knees. (Tr. 198). She couldn't walk “very far” and standing made her lightheaded and dizzy; before the onset of her conditions, she had been able to “walk, move with ease, be on [her] feet.” (Tr. 198-99). She did not indicate that she used any ambulation aids (Tr. 204). For medications, she reported taking Ambien. (Tr. 205).

         She marked that her illnesses, injuries, or conditions affected her ability to lift, squat, bend, stand, reach, walk, sit, kneel, hear, climb stairs, see, complete tasks, concentrate, and use her hands, as well as her memory. (Tr. 203). She explained: “can't lift much have arthritis and fibromyalgia so in a lot of pain to be able to move.” (Id.). By Plaintiff's estimate, she could walk fifty steps before needing to stop and rest for fifteen to twenty minutes. (Id.) She did not finish what she started, but followed written or spoken instructions ...


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