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Bentley-Clearwood v. Berryhill

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

June 3, 2019

NANCY A. BERRHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Honorable Mark A. Goldsmith Judge.



         Plaintiff Jamie A. Bentley-Clearwood (“Bentley-Clearwood”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), challenging the final decision of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Both parties have filed summary judgment motions (Docs. #15, #17), which have been referred to this Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).


         For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) conclusion that Bentley-Clearwood is not disabled under the Act is supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Court recommends that the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. #17) be GRANTED, that Bentley-Clearwood's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. #15) be DENIED, and that, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the ALJ's decision be AFFIRMED.

         II. REPORT

         A. Background

         Bentley-Clearwood was 47 years old at the time of her alleged onset date of January 15, 2016 (amended at the hearing to April 7, 2016 (Tr. 41)), and at 5'4" tall weighed approximately 171 pounds. (Tr. 26, 45). She completed three years of college and, prior to filing her instant application for DIB, had most recently worked as a customer service representative. (Tr. 45, 56-57). This role encompassed the responsibilities of an ordering clerk and required her to lead conference calls or conduct online communications with suppliers and engineers. (Tr. 57). She alleges disability primarily as a result of depression and anxiety. (Tr. 46-47).

         After Bentley-Clearwood's application for DIB was denied at the initial level on August 22, 2016 (Tr. 65), she requested an administrative hearing, which was held on December 13, 2017, before ALJ Dennis Matulewicz. (Tr. 31-64). Bentley-Clearwood, who was represented by attorney Gregory Frye, testified at the hearing, as did vocational expert Cheryl Mosley. (Id.). On January 25, 2018, the ALJ issued a written decision finding that Bentley-Clearwood is not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 17-27). On May 24, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review. (Tr. 1-6). Bentley-Clearwood timely filed for judicial review of the final decision on July 19, 2018. (Doc. #1).

         The Court has thoroughly reviewed the transcript in this matter, including Bentley-Clearwood's medical record, Function and Disability Reports, and testimony as to her conditions and resulting limitations. Instead of summarizing that information here, the Court will make references and provide citations to the transcript as necessary in its discussion of the parties' arguments.

         B. The ALJ's Application of the Disability Framework Analysis

         Under the Act, DIB are available only for those who have a “disability.” See Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). The Act defines “disability” as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Commissioner's regulations provide that a disability is to be determined through the application of a five-step sequential analysis:

Step One: If the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Two: If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments that “significantly limits ... physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Three: If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, has a severe impairment that is expected to last for at least twelve months, and the severe impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the regulations, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled regardless of age, education, or work experience.
Step Four: If the claimant is able to perform his or her past relevant work, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Five: Even if the claimant is unable to perform his or her past relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that the claimant can perform, in view of his or her age, education, and work experience, benefits are denied.

Scheuneman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2011 WL 6937331, at *7 (E.D. Mich. Dec. 6, 2011) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520); see also Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001). “The burden of proof is on the claimant throughout the first four steps.... If the analysis reaches the fifth step without a finding that claimant is not disabled, the burden transfers to the [defendant].” Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).

         Following this five-step sequential analysis, the ALJ found that Bentley-Clearwood is not disabled under the Act. At Step One, the ALJ found that Bentley-Clearwood has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 15, 2016. (Tr. 19). At Step Two, the ALJ found that she has the severe impairments of obesity, asthma, essential hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), affective disorder/depression, and anxiety disorder. (Tr. 20). At Step Three, the ALJ found that Bentley-Clearwood's impairments, whether considered alone or in combination, do not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. (Id.).

         The ALJ then assessed Bentley-Clearwood's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), concluding that she is capable of performing light work, with the following additional limitations: she cannot use ladders or scaffolds; she must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat, cold, wetness, humidity, vibrations, fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poor ventilation; and she cannot work with hazards including dangerous/unprotected machinery or work at unprotected heights. (Tr. 21). She is limited to simple, unskilled work with a specific vocational preparation (“SVP”) of one or two with occasional contact or discussion with coworkers or the general public; limited to routine work that does not require changes or adaptations in work settings or general duties more than once per month; and limited to jobs without production quotas mandating a specific number of pieces per hour, or with a down line coworker depending on her productivity. (Id.). At Step Four, the ALJ concluded, based in part on testimony provided by the vocational expert (“VE”) in response to hypothetical questions, that Bentley-Clearwood is not capable of performing her past relevant work as a customer service representative. (Tr. 25). At Step Five, the ALJ concluded that, considering her age, education, work experience and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Bentley-Clearwood can perform at the light level, including garment sorter (200, 000 jobs) and inspector (830, 000 jobs) and at the sedentary level, including final assembler (200, 000 jobs) and nut sorter (450, 000 jobs). (Tr. 26). As a result, the ALJ concluded that Bentley-Clearwood is not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 27).

         C. Standard of Review

         The District Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review under this statute is limited in that the court “must affirm the Commissioner's conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.” Longworth v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005) (internal citations omitted). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007) (internal quotations omitted). In deciding whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the court does “not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence or decide questions of credibility.” Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007).

         When reviewing the Commissioner's factual findings, the court is limited to an examination of the record and must consider the record as a whole. See Bass, 499 F.3d at 512-13; Wyatt v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992). The court “may look to any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the Appeals Council, ” or in this case, the ALJ. Heston, 245 F.3d at 535; Walker v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 884 F.2d 241, 245 (6th Cir. 1989). There is no requirement, however, that either the ALJ or this court discuss every piece of evidence in the administrative record. See Kornecky v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 167 Fed.Appx. 496, 508 (6th Cir. 2006) (β€œ[A]n ALJ can consider all evidence without directly addressing in his written decision every piece of evidence submitted by a party.”) (internal quotations omitted). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, β€œit must be affirmed ...

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