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Edwards v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 11, 2018





         The plaintiff filed the present action on June 6, 2017 seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claims for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. The case was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Mona K. Majzoub under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and E.D. Mich. LR 72.1(b)(3). Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment to reverse the decision of the Commissioner and remand the case for further consideration by the administrative law judge. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment requesting affirmance of the decision of the Commissioner. Magistrate Judge Majzoub filed a report on April 18, 2018 recommending that the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be denied, the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment be granted, and the matter be dismissed with prejudice. The plaintiff filed a timely objection, and the defendant filed a response. The matter is now before the Court.

         The filing of timely objections to a report and recommendation requires the court to “make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667 (1980); United States v. Walters, 638 F.2d 947 (6th Cir. 1981). This de novo review requires the court to re-examine all of the relevant evidence previously reviewed by the magistrate judge in order to determine whether the recommendation should be accepted, rejected, or modified in whole or in part. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         “The filing of objections provides the district court with the opportunity to consider the specific contentions of the parties and to correct any errors immediately, ” Walters, 638 F.2d at 950, enabling the court “to focus attention on those issues-factual and legal-that are at the heart of the parties' dispute, ” Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 147 (1985). As a result, “‘[o]nly those specific objections to the magistrate's report made to the district court will be preserved for appellate review; making some objections but failing to raise others will not preserve all the objections a party may have.'” McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 837 (6th Cir. 2006) (quoting Smith v. Detroit Fed'n of Teachers Local 231, 829 F.2d 1370, 1373 (6th Cir. 1987)).

         The Court has reviewed the file, the report and recommendation, and the plaintiff's objection and has made a de novo review of the administrative record in light of the parties' submissions.

         The plaintiff, who is now 50 years old, filed her application for disability insurance benefits on March 18, 2014, when she was 45. She had worked as a transit bus driver, among other jobs, but she suffered a stroke on March 21, 2013, which left her with left-side weakness in her upper and lower extremities. The plaintiff has a high school diploma and an associate's degree from Dorsey Business School. In the application that is the subject of the present appeal, the plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of March 21, 2013. The plaintiff alleged disability due to the residual effects of the stroke, left side processing disorder, blurred vision in left eye, hearing problems on left side, speech problems, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, bipolar disorder, and hidradenitis suppurativa.

         The plaintiff's application for disability benefits was denied initially on September 15, 2014. She timely filed a request for an administrative hearing, and on February 4, 2016, the plaintiff appeared with counsel before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Stephen Marchioro. On April 12, 2016, ALJ Marchioro issued a written decision in which he found that the plaintiff was not disabled. On April 5, 2017, the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. The plaintiff then filed her complaint seeking judicial review.

         ALJ Marchioro reached his conclusion that the plaintiff was not disabled by applying the five-step sequential analysis prescribed by the Secretary in 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a). He found that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 21, 2013 through December 31, 2015, the date she last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act (step one); the plaintiff suffered from cerebrovascular accident with late effects, hypertensive vascular disease, organic brain syndrome, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, impairments which were “severe” within the meaning of the Social Security Act (step two); and none of those impairments alone or in combination met or equaled a listing in the regulations (step three).

         Before proceeding further, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, but that she had certain limitations. He found that the plaintiff: (1) needs to be able to alternate between sitting and standing, where she could sit for 60 minutes and then stand for up to 30 minutes while remaining at her position at the work station; (2) can frequently push and/or pull with the left upper extremity; (3) can frequently operate foot controls with the lower left extremity; (4) can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and can frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; (5) can frequently handle, finger, and feel with the non-dominant left upper extremity; (6) must avoid all exposure to excessive vibration; (7) can occasionally be exposed to unguarded moving mechanical parts and unprotected heights; (8) is limited to work involving only simple routine tasks with only occasional changes in the work setting; and (9) is limited to occasional interaction with the public and supervisors.

         At step four, he found that the plaintiff could not perform the duties required for her past relevant work as a shuttle bus driver, dispatcher, school bus driver, and data entry. According to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), these jobs ranged from semi-skilled to skilled, and the plaintiff performed them at various exertional levels.

         In applying the fifth step, the ALJ considered the testimony of a vocational expert, who stated that even with these limitations, the plaintiff could perform jobs such as assembler, with 94, 000 jobs existing nationally; inspector, with 36, 000 jobs existing nationally; and packager, with 61, 000 jobs existing nationally. Based on those findings and using Medical Vocational Rule 202.21 as a framework, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

         In her motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff focused on a narrow criticism of one aspect of the ALJ's RFC determination: she contended that the finding that she could “frequently” handle, finger, and feel with the non-dominant left upper extremity was not supported by substantial evidence. That restriction was based on the ALJ's consideration of medical evidence furnished by consultative physician A. Neil Johnson, M.D., whose opinion the ALJ accorded “great weight.” Dr. Johnson said that the plaintiff had “[f]ull use of the hands, ” Tr. 347, but also observed that she could not “button or pick up a coin very well with the left hand, ” Tr. 348. The plaintiff maintained that there was such incongruity with the dexterity ...

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