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Graham v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 7, 2018

ROBERT GRAHAM, 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 Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title 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.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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) (citations omitted). 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) (citation omitted). 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 37 years of age on his alleged disability onset date. (PageID.209, 234). He possesses a ninth grade education and previously worked as a bagger. (PageID.48, 72). Plaintiff applied for benefits on June 23, 2014, alleging that he had been disabled December 13, 2008, due to back pain, depression, poor concentration, cognitive limitations, headaches, blood clot in his head, poor vision, right knee pain. (PageID.209-13, 238). Plaintiff later amended his disability onset date to June 23, 2014. (PageID.234). Plaintiff's application was denied, after which time he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (PageID.152-208). On December 16, 2015, Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Paul Jones with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (PageID.51-100). In a written decision dated February 18, 2016, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.40-50). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's determination, rendering it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.26-30). 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 his 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 he can satisfy his burden by demonstrating that his impairments are so severe that he is unable to perform his previous work, and cannot, considering his 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 his 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 determined that Plaintiff suffered from: (1) affective disorders; (2) borderline intellectual functioning; and (3) organic disorders, severe impairments that whether considered alone or in combination with other impairments, failed to satisfy the requirements of any impairment identified in the Listing of Impairments detailed in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (PageID.43-46). With respect to Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform work at all exertional levels subject to the following limitations: (1) he is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; (2) he can perform work with occasional changes in the work setting; and (3) he can perform work with occasional public interaction. (PageID.46).

         A vocational expert testified that Plaintiff's RFC did not preclude the performance of Plaintiff's past relevant work as a bagger. (PageID.90). The vocational expert further testified that there existed approximately 923, 000 jobs in the national economy which an individual with Plaintiff's RFC could perform, such limitations notwithstanding. (PageID.90-91). This represents a significant number of jobs. See, e.g., Taskila v. Commissioner of Social Security, 819 F.3d 902, 905 (6th Cir. 2016) (“[s]ix thousand jobs in the United States fits comfortably within what this court and others have deemed ‘significant'”). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits.

         I. The Decision by the Appeals Council not to Disturb ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff appealed the denial of his application for benefits to the Appeal Council. In support of his appeal, Plaintiff submitted additional evidence procured after the ALJ's decision. Specifically, Plaintiff submitted a two-page “Mental RFC” form completed by one of his care providers after the ALJ issued his decision. (PageID.31-32). The person who completed this form did not specify the date(s) or time period to which the assessment pertained. (PageID.31-32). The Appeals Council considered this evidence, but concluded that because it concerned Plaintiff's functional ability at a date subsequent to the ALJ's decision, it provided no basis for ...


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