Bradley A. Cardew, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant-Appellee.
Argued: April 26, 2018
from the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:16-cv-11278-Mark A.
Goldsmith, District Judge.
Stephen Sloan, DALEY DISABILITY LAW, P.C., Chicago, Illinois,
Santen, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Boston,
Massachusetts, for Appellee.
Stephen Sloan, Frederick J. Daley, Jr., DALEY DISABILITY LAW,
P.C., Chicago, Illinois, for Appellant.
Santen, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Boston,
Massachusetts, for Appellee.
Before: BATCHELDER, McKEAGUE, and GRIFFIN, Circuit Judges.
McKEAGUE, Circuit Judge.
Cardew-a wheelchair-bound individual with quadriplegia-landed
a short-term, highly accommodated summer internship with Lear
Corporation thanks to his cousin, a vice president at Lear.
But as James Agate once quipped, "Every good deed brings
its own punishment." This aphorism surely resonated with
Cardew, though with a twist: his cousin's good deed
wrought unintended punishment on Cardew. After the
internship, an administrative law judge (ALJ) denied
Cardew's retroactive child disability benefits solely
based on the income he received while at Lear. The ALJ
reasoned (and the district court agreed) that because
Cardew's earnings over three months exceeded a
"bright line" threshold in the regulations, he had
been "able to work at the substantial gainful activity
level." But this legal framework is both incomplete and
more rigid than the regulations require. Even assuming Cardew
engaged in "gainful" activity, the ALJ failed to
consider all the special conditions attendant to
Cardew's internship that could rebut the presumption,
created by his income, that he had engaged in
"substantial" activity. And even assuming Cardew
had exceeded the regulatory threshold after adjusting for his
special conditions, the "line" does not burn so
bright-adjusted income over the threshold only
"ordinarily" shows that a claimant has engaged in
substantial gainful activity. Accordingly, we
VACATE in part the district court's
judgment and REMAND for further proceedings
consistent with this opinion.
fifteen, Bradley Cardew suffered a severe spinal injury from
an accident that rendered him wheelchair-bound with C5-C6
quadriplegia. Cardew nevertheless attended Oakland University
from 1999 until he graduated in 2009, though he has lived
with his parents his entire life. In April 2012, Cardew
sought assistance and filed an application for retroactive
child disability benefits, alleging that he has been
continuously disabled since November 30, 1999. The Social
Security Administration (SSA) denied his claim, finding
Cardew ineligible because he had engaged in substantial
gainful work after he turned 22-years old-solely based on a
short-term, highly accommodated internship with Lear
summer of 2004, Cardew's cousin, Jason-then a vice
president at Lear Corporation-secured Cardew a position as a
"finance department intern" in Lear's
Rochester, Michigan, office. Cardew's supervisor was a
family friend who had known Jason Cardew since childhood. For
this internship, Cardew's job primarily consisted of
completing tasks delegated to him by three or four full-time
employees. These tasks included composing and updating
spreadsheets regarding client billables, reviewing bills and
invoices to determine any deficiencies, and various other
forms of basic office work. Over approximately a three-month
period, Cardew earned $5, 502.75.
made numerous accommodations to allow Cardew to perform his
work comfortably despite his disability, including: a 30-hour
work week, rather than the typical 40-hour week; exemptions
from menial tasks typically assigned interns that involved
traveling, such as picking up coffee or lunch, or attending
meetings; exemptions from clerical tasks because of his
difficulty with typing; and more frequent breaks to adjust
his position in his wheelchair, in order to avoid skin ulcers
and use the restroom. Lear also modified three doors to be
wheelchair-accessible at a cost to Lear of $4, 000.
Lear's vice president of human resources determined that
Cardew was approximately "35% less productive" than
other summer interns, though his pay was not reduced for his
to Cardew, "[t]he internship ended like it was supposed
to" at the end of the term. Cardew noted that his cousin
had informally offered to have him back the following year,
but that opportunity never came to fruition because an
economic downturn caused Lear to cut back the intern program.
And, in fact, Cardew was again informally approached by his
cousin in 2011 about returning to work for Lear in a
full-time capacity, but that opportunity also fell through,
mostly due to Cardew's physical limitations and the
demands of full-time employment.
testified at length before the ALJ and submitted documentary
evidence to support his claim for benefits. The issue before
the ALJ was limited to whether any of Cardew's employment
constituted "substantial gainful activity" under
the applicable social security regulations, thereby
precluding benefits. The ALJ ultimately denied Cardew's
claim for benefits. She found that Cardew had engaged in
"substantial gainful activity" during his
three-month internship at Lear. Further, the ALJ held that
Cardew had not established that his internship was an
unsuccessful work attempt, or that employer subsidies or
impairment-related work expenses reduced his earnings below
the regulatory threshold. In particular, the ALJ held that
"the costs incurred by Lear in adapting the workplace to
suit the claimant's needs," i.e., the installation
of the handicap-accessible automatic doors, "are not
impairment-related work expenses because they were not a cost
paid by the claimant."
sought review from the SSA's Appeals Council. The Appeals
Council denied his request, finding that there was no basis
to overturn the ALJ's decision. Therefore, the ALJ's
decision became the Commissioner's final decision in this
case. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Cardew then sued
the Commissioner in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern
District of Michigan. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
The case was assigned to a magistrate judge for a report and
magistrate judge first found that the Lear internship was
substantial gainful activity under the pertinent regulation
because it was the type of work that is typically done for
pay or for profit; that the internship was not an
unsuccessful work attempt since it did not end because of the
removal of any special conditions; and that, after reducing
Cardew's countable earnings by 35%, his income was still
higher than the $810 minimum threshold for substantial
gainful activity in 2004. Though describing the result as
"harsh," the magistrate judge held that the ALJ
correctly excluded the $4, 000 cost incurred by Lear in
installing handicap-accessible doors in his work area because
substantial evidence supported the ALJ's conclusion that
it was an impairment-related work expense borne by Lear, and
not a subsidy deductible from Cardew's earnings.
Therefore, the magistrate judge recommended that the district
court affirm the ALJ's decision.
timely filed several objections to the magistrate judge's
report. The district court overruled Cardew's objections
adopted the magistrate judge's recommendation. Cardew now
generally review the ALJ's decision under the deferential
substantial-evidence standard. Biestek v. Comm'r of
Soc. Sec., 880 F.3d 778, 782-83 (6th Cir. 2017). If the
ALJ's decision is supported by "such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion," the decision will generally
stand. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401
(1971). If such evidence exists, the court should defer
"even if there is substantial evidence in the record
that would have supported an opposite conclusion."
Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399,
406 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Key v. Callahan, 109
F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)). But we review legal questions
de novo, including whether the ALJ applied the appropriate
legal standard. See id. at 407; Smith v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 482 F.3d 873, 876 (6th Cir.
2007). That is, "if the ALJ commits an error of law, the
court must reverse and remand, 'even if the factual
determinations are otherwise supported by substantial
evidence and the outcome on remand is unlikely to be