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Bonk v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 17, 2019

Alicia Bonk, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         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 Plaintiffs claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II 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 will be affirmed.


         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. Secretary 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. Secretary 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. Secretary of Department of Health and Human Services, 964 F.2d 524, 528 (6th Cir. 1992). 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. Secretary 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). This standard affords to the administrative decision maker considerable latitude, and it 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.


         Plaintiff was 49 years of age on her alleged disability onset date. (ECF No. 5-5, PageID.189). She successfully completed high school and worked previously as a receptionist and administrative clerk. (ECF No. 5-2, PageID.46). Plaintiff applied for benefits on May 8, 2015, alleging that she had been disabled since January 5, 2015, due to arthritis, chronic pain, peripheral neuropathy, high blood pressure, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, right foot tendonitis, and severe back pain. (PageID.189-93, 233). Plaintiffs application was denied, after which time she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (PageID.96-187). On August 21, 2017, Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Keven Vodak with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (PageID.54-94). In a written decision dated January 24, 2018, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.37-48). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's determination, rendering it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (PageID.21-27). Plaintiff timely filed this appeal.


         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). 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 her residual functional capacity. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945.

         The burden of establishing the right to benefits rests squarely on Plaintiffs shoulders, and she can satisfy her burden by demonstrating that her impairments are so severe that she is unable to perform her previous work, and cannot, considering her 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 her residual functioning capacity (RFC) is determined. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Walters v. Commissioner of Social Security, 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffers from the following severe impairments: (1) degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; (2) lumbar spondylosis; (3) osteoarthritis in the bilateral knees; (4) calcaneal spur on the right foot; (5) diabetes mellitus; and (6) obesity. The ALJ also determined the impairments, whether considered alone or in combination with other impairments, failed to satisfy the requirements of the Listing of Impairments detailed in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (PageID.40-42).

         With respect to Plaintiffs residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the ability to perform light work subject to the following limitations: (1) during an eight-hour workday, she can stand/walk for four hours; (2) she needs to alternate from a sitting position every hour, stand for two to three minutes, and then return to sitting; (3) she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (4) she can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and (5) she can have no exposure to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts. (PageID.42).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work, at which point the burden shifted to the Commissioner to establish by substantial evidence that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, her limitations notwithstanding. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. While the ALJ is not required to question a vocational expert on this issue, "a finding supported by substantial evidence that a claimant has the vocational qualifications to perform specific jobs" is needed to meet the burden. O 'Banner v. Sec >y of Health and Human Services,587 F.2d 321, 323 (6th Cir. 1978) (emphasis added). This standard requires more than mere intuition or conjecture by the ALJ that the claimant can perform specific jobs in the national economy. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. Accordingly, ALJs routinely question vocational ...

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