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Fooce v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 30, 2018




         This is a social security action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). Plaintiff Lorie Ann Fooce seeks review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed an initial brief on September 13, 2017. (ECF No. 14). The Commissioner filed a response brief on October 11, 2017. (ECF No. 15). Both parties consented to proceed before a Magistrate Judge. (ECF No. 10). This matter is ready for decision.

         Plaintiff was born on October 11, 1967. (PageID.309). She is five feet tall and weighs in excess of 250 pounds.[1] Plaintiff has a high school diploma and has previously worked as a certified nursing assistant, a custodian, and a housekeeper. Plaintiff alleges that she became disabled on April 23, 2009, when she injured her back while working as a certified nursing assistant.

         On June 17, 2009, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB. (PageID.261-266). The alleged onset date was April 23, 2009, and her last insured date was December 31, 2014. (PageID.261, 309). After her initial application was denied, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (PageID.30). On May 4, 2011, the ALJ held an administrative hearing in which Plaintiff was represented by Attorney Rudolph F. Perhalla. (PageID.48-79). At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that her primary complaint is her lower back pain and anxiety. (PageID.61). She stated that she had gained 50 pounds since she quit work. (PageID.63). Plaintiff lives with her mother and spends most of the day sitting or lying down. (PageID.56). Although her mother did the majority of the cooking and washing the dishes, Plaintiff would help with some of the other cleaning around the house. Plaintiff also stated that she has trouble sleeping and could walk about a half of a block and sit for “like an hour, hour and half.” (PageID.65).

         On July 12, 2011, the ALJ issued his decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.35-44). Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision, but the request was denied on February 7, 2013. (PageID.23-25). Plaintiff then filed a complaint in this Court. See Fooce v. Commissioner of Social Security, Case No: 2:13-cv-126 (W.D. Mich.). In that case, the parties filed a joint stipulation for dismissal, and the Court subsequently entered a judgment reversing and remanding the Commissioner's decision. (PageID.152).

         Following the remand, the ALJ held a second administrative hearing on November 19, 2014. (PageID.104-127). At this hearing, Plaintiff's testimony was largely similar to her testimony at the first hearing. She stated that she was in constant pain and had trouble standing and walking. Plaintiff testified the she is taking Effexor for her anxiety, and Flexeril and Motrin for her back pain, and Flexeril, Glyburide, and Metformin for her diabetes. (PageID.112-114). She stated that she tried physical therapy and a pain injection, but her conditions did not improve. (PageID.113-114).

         On January 15, 2015, the ALJ issued his decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.88-99). In the opinion, the ALJ's states that the Appeals Council remanded the case to him to further evaluate a treating source's statement, Plaintiff's obesity, and a November 2010 MRI. (PageID.88). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on February 14, 2017, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (PageID.81-83).

         “Our review of the ALJ's decision is limited to whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence.” Winslow v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 566 Fed.Appx. 418, 420 (6th Cir. 2014) (quoting Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 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); see also Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 475 (6th Cir. 2003). It is the Commissioner who is charged with finding the facts relevant to an application for disability benefits, and the Commissioner's findings are conclusive provided they are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Substantial evidence is defined as more than a mere scintilla of evidence but “such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Jones v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 945 F.2d 1365, 1369 (6th Cir. 1991). In determining the substantiality of the evidence, the Court must consider the evidence on the record as a whole and take into account whatever evidence in the record fairly detracts from its weight. See Richardson v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 735 F.2d 962, 963 (6th Cir. 1984). 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 v. Sullivan, 998 F.2d 342, 347 (6th Cir. 1993); Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545.

         The ALJ must employ a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether the claimant is disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a-f), 416.920(a-f); Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004). At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can still perform substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant's impairments are considered “severe.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). At step three, the ALJ determines whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal a listing in 20 C.F.R. part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). At step four, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to still perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). At step five, after considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience, the ALJ determines whether a significant number of other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If the ALJ determines Plaintiff is not disabled under any step, the analysis ceases and Plaintiff is declared as such. 20 C.F.R § 404.1520(a). If the ALJ can make a dispositive finding at any point in the review, no further finding is required. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a).

         Plaintiff has the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by her impairments and that she is precluded from performing past relevant work through step four. Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). At step five, it is the Commissioner's burden “to identify a significant number of jobs in the economy that accommodate the claimant's residual functional capacity (determined at step four) and vocational profile.” Id.

         Here, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's claim failed at step five of the analysis. He first found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial activity since April 23, 2009. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments- degenerative disk disease of the lumbar spine, obesity, diabetes mellitus, and an anxiety disorder. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that met or equaled the requirements of the Listing of Impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404. Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         With respect to Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform sedentary work with the following limitations:

she can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; occasionally climb ramps or stairs; and occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel or crawl. In addition, the claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to the use of moving machinery and unprotected heights; and she is limited to unskilled work involving simple, routine and repetitive tasks, no interaction with the public and only occasional interaction with coworkers, only work that allows ...

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