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Brents v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 18, 2018


          Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Stafford



         The plaintiff filed the present action on March 23, 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 Elizabeth A. Stafford 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 (ALJ). The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment requesting affirmance of the decision of the Commissioner. Magistrate Judge Stafford filed a report on April 2, 2018 recommending that the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be granted, the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment be denied, and the matter be remanded for further consideration. The Commissioner filed timely objections, and the plaintiff filed a response. The matter is now before the Court.

         The main issue in the case is whether the ALJ gave adequate reasons for the minimal weight she accorded the plaintiff's treating physician's assessment of the plaintiff's limitations. The plaintiff argued in her motion for summary judgment that the reasons cited by the ALJ for discounting that opinion are not supported by substantial evidence in the record. The magistrate judge agreed, to a point. She focused on a specific aspect of the doctor's opinion, found wanting the ALJ's discussion of that feature, and determined that further proceedings at the administrative level are required. The Commissioner filed a single objection to that part of the report and recommendation.

         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 Commissioner's objection and has made a de novo review of the administrative record in light of the parties' submissions.

         The plaintiff, who is now 56 years old, filed her application for disability insurance benefits on April 16, 2014, when she was 52. The plaintiff has a high school diploma and three years of college. She previously worked as a juvenile detention specialist. In the application that is the subject of the present appeal, the plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of January 17, 2013. The plaintiff alleged disability due to congestive heart failure, hypertension, arthritis, shortness of breath, fatigue, and edema.

         The plaintiff's application for disability benefits was denied initially on August 6, 2014. She timely filed a request for an administrative hearing, and on December 2, 2015, the plaintiff appeared before ALJ Patricia S. McKay. On February 2, 2016, ALJ McKay issued a written decision in which she found that the plaintiff was not disabled. On February 14, 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 McKay reached her 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). She found that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 17, 2013 (step one); the plaintiff suffered from coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure status post stenting, asthma, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, degenerative joint disease of the hips, and obesity, impairments which were “severe” within the meaning of the Social Security Act (step two); and that 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 a limited range of light work. The limitations all addressed certain physical impairments, but not all the ones the plaintiff and her physician described. The ALJ found that the plaintiff: (1) only occasionally can climb stairs, crouch, crawl, kneel, stoop, or bend; (2) must avoid working around hazards defined as dangerous moving machinery or working at unprotected heights, and as such, is not able to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding; (3) must avoid exposure to cold temperatures, or pulmonary irritants; and (4) needs to have the opportunity to alternate between sitting and standing while engaged in the work, as she desires.

         At step four, she found that the plaintiff could not perform the duties required for her past relevant work as a juvenile detention specialist, a semiskilled job that was “medium exertionally” but light to heavy as she performed it. The job required mostly standing and walking, and she had to lift 100 pounds or more, and occasionally restrain children.

         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 clerical assistant, with 1, 500 jobs existing in Michigan and 165, 000 jobs existing nationally; inspector, with 2, 000 jobs existing in Michigan and 150, 000 jobs existing nationally; and information clerk, with 1, 000 jobs existing in Michigan and 75, 000 jobs existing nationally. Based on those findings and using Medical Vocational Rule 202.14 as a framework, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

         In her summary judgment motion, the plaintiff contended that the ALJ should have given great weight - if not controlling weight - to the opinion of her treating physician, May Antone, M.D., and failed to give good reasons for not doing so. And she contended that the ALJ improperly gave “great weight” to a non-examining source, R.H. ...

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