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Dalecke v. Berryhill

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

June 24, 2019

SCOTT DALECKE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Honorable Sean F. Cox Judge

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [12, 16]

          DAVID R. GRAND UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Scott Dalecke (“Dalecke”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), challenging the final decision of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Both parties have filed summary judgment motions (Docs. #12, #16), which have been referred to this Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).

         I. RECOMMENDATION

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) conclusion that Dalecke is not disabled under the Act is not supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Court recommends that the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. #16) be DENIED, that Dalecke's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. #12) be GRANTED IN PART to the extent it seeks remand, and DENIED IN PART to the extent it seeks an award of benefits and that, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this case be REMANDED to the ALJ for further proceedings consistent with this Recommendation.

         II. REPORT

         A. Background

         Dalecke was 48 years old at the time of his alleged onset date of April 10, 2014, and at 5'8" tall weighed approximately 300 pounds during the relevant time period.[1] (Tr. 338). He had obtained his GED and, prior to filing his instant application for DIB, had most recently worked as a production line worker and a machine operator at U.S. Manufacturing building axles for Jeep Wranglers (Tr. 340, 359). He alleges disability primarily as a result of back pain. (Tr. 465).

         After Dalecke's application for DIB was denied at the initial level on August 28, 2015 (Tr. 379), he timely requested an administrative hearing, which was held on January 31, 2017, before ALJ Roy E. LaRoche, Jr. (Tr. 329-365). Dalecke, who was represented by attorney Nicole M. Winston, testified at the hearing, as did vocational expert Stephanee A. Leech. (Id.). On March 29, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision finding that Dalecke is not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 312-324). On April 23, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review. (Tr. 1-9). Dalecke timely filed for judicial review of the final decision on June 21, 2018. (Doc. #1).

         The Court has thoroughly reviewed the transcript in this matter, including Dalecke's medical record, Function and Disability Reports, and testimony as to his 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 Dalecke is not disabled under the Act. At Step One, the ALJ found that Dalecke has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 10, 2014, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 314). At Step Two, the ALJ found that he has the severe impairments of obesity, degenerative disc disease status post two surgical procedures; left sciatic neuropathy status post surgery; loss of visual acuity; and diabetes mellitus (20 CFR 404.1520(c)). (Id.). At Step Three, the ALJ found that Dalecke's impairments, whether considered alone or in combination, do not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. (Tr. 315).

         The ALJ then assessed Dalecke's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), finding that he is capable of performing light work, with the following additional limitations: occasional operation of foot controls with the bilateral lower extremities; alternatively sitting/standing at will, provided he is not off task more than 10% of the workday; no climbing of ladders, ropes and scaffolds; occasional climbing of ramps/stairs; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling; no more than occasional exposure to extreme cold, humidity/wetness, and vibration; no exposure to unprotected heights or moving mechanical machinery; and no commercial driving or operation of heavy equipment. (Tr. 315). At Step Four, the ALJ concluded, based in part on testimony provided by the vocational expert (“VE”) in response to hypothetical questions, that Dalecke is not capable of performing his past relevant work as a production line worker or machine operator (Tr. 323). At Step Five, the ALJ concluded that, considering his age, education, work experience and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Dalecke can perform at the light level, including bench assembler (40, 000 jobs), packer (200, 000 jobs) and inspector (80, 000 jobs). (Tr. 324). As a result, the ALJ concluded that Dalecke is not disabled under the Act. (Id.).

         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) (“[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, “it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion.” Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994) (internal citations omitted).

         D. Analysis

         In his motion for summary judgment, Dalecke argues that the ALJ erred: (1) by failing to obtain a medical opinion on the issue of equivalency as required by SSR 96-6p; (2) by violating the treating physician rule by improperly weighing and evaluating the opinion evidence of his treating ...


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