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Therrien v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 28, 2019


          Mark A. Goldsmith United States District Judge.


          Stephanie Dawkins Davis United States Magistrate Judge.


         A. Proceedings in this Court

         On September 21, 2018, plaintiff Tracie V. Therrien filed the instant suit. (Dkt. 1). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 72.1(b)(3), District Judge Mark A. Goldsmith referred this matter to the undersigned to review the Commissioner's unfavorable decision denying Therrien's claim for disability benefits. (Dkt. 3). This matter is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Dkt. 14, 16). Therrien also filed a reply in support of her motion. (Dkt. 17).

         B. Administrative Proceedings

         On May 7, 2015, Therrien filed applications for supplemental security income and for disability insurance and period of disability benefits, alleging disability beginning on September 30, 2013. (Tr. 10).[1] The claim was initially disapproved by the Commissioner on August 8, 2015. Id. Therrien requested a hearing and on October 12, 2017, she appeared, via video teleconference, with counsel present, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Christopher J. Mattia, who considered the case de novo. (Tr. 28-58). In a decision dated December 29, 2017, the ALJ found that Therrien was not disabled. (Tr. 7-23). The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council, on July 29, 2018, denied Therrien's request for review. (Tr. 1-6); Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 543-44 (6th Cir. 2004).

         For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned RECOMMENDS that the Court GRANT plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, DENY defendant's motion for summary judgment, REVERSE the findings of the Commissioner, and REMAND this matter for further proceedings under Sentence Four.


         A. ALJ Findings

         Therrien was born in 1968 was 49 years old on the date of the hearing before the ALJ. (Tr. 34). Her date last insured was December 31, 2016. (Tr. 31, 124). She has past relevant work as a janitor, which is unskilled and medium exertion level. (Tr. 21). She also has work experience as an adult foster caregiver, housekeeper, and restaurant server. (Tr. 21, 243, 246). She stopped working on September 30, 2013 when she was hospitalized because of her schizoaffective disorder, psychosis, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. (Tr. 183).

         The ALJ applied the five-step disability analysis and found at step one that Therrien had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date. (Tr. 12). At step two, the ALJ found that Therrien's schizoaffective disorder, OCD, anxiety, and alcohol dependence in remission were “severe” within the meaning of the second sequential step. (Tr. 13). However, at step three, the ALJ found no evidence that her impairments singly or in combination met or medically equaled one of the listings in the regulations. (Tr. 14). Thereafter, the ALJ assessed Therrien's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: the claimant is limited to understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions; make simple work-related decisions; occasionally interact with supervisors, co-workers and the public; occasionally deal with changes in a routine, work setting; and perform work that does not require a production line pace, where co-workers' productivity is dependent on the claimant's productivity.

(Tr. 15). At step four, the ALJ found that Therrien was able to perform her past relevant work as a janitor and therefore, denied benefits. (Tr. 21). In the alternative, at step five, the ALJ found that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Therrien can perform and thus, she was not disabled from December 16, 2013 through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 21-22)


         A. Standard of Review

         In enacting the social security system, Congress created a two-tiered system in which the administrative agency handles claims, and the judiciary merely reviews the agency determination for exceeding statutory authority or for being arbitrary and capricious. Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521 (1990). The administrative process itself is multifaceted in that a state agency makes an initial determination that can be appealed first to the agency itself, then to an ALJ, and finally to the Appeals Council. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137 (1987). If relief is not found during this administrative review process, the claimant may file an action in federal district court. Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 537 (6th Cir.1986).

         This Court has original jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review 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); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). In deciding whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, “we do 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); Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). “It is of course for the ALJ, and not the reviewing court, to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, including that of the claimant.” Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 247 (6th Cir. 2007); Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 475 (6th Cir. 2003) (an “ALJ is not required to accept a claimant's subjective complaints and may . . . consider the credibility of a claimant when making a determination of disability.”); Walters, 127 F.3d at 531 (“Discounting credibility to a certain degree is appropriate where an ALJ finds contradictions among medical reports, claimant's testimony, and other evidence.”). “However, the ALJ is not free to make credibility determinations based solely upon an ‘intangible or intuitive notion about an individual's credibility.'” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 247, quoting Soc. Sec. Rul. 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, *4.

         If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Therefore, this Court may not reverse the Commissioner's decision merely because it disagrees or because “there exists in the record substantial evidence to support a different conclusion.” McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006); Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (en banc). 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, 486 F.3d at 241; Jones, 336 F.3d at 475. “The substantial evidence standard presupposes that there is a ‘zone of choice' within which the Commissioner may proceed without interference from the courts.” Felisky v. Bowen, 35 F.3d 1027, 1035 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted) (citing Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545).

         The scope of this Court's review is limited to an examination of the record only. Bass, 499 F.3d at 512-13; Foster v. Halter, 279 F.3d 348, 357 (6th Cir. 2001). When reviewing the Commissioner's factual findings for substantial evidence, a reviewing court must consider the evidence in the record as a whole, including evidence which might subtract from its weight. Wyatt v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992). “Both the court of appeals and the district court may look to any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the Appeals Council.” Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 535 (6th Cir. 2001). There is no requirement, however, that either the ALJ or the reviewing court discuss every piece of evidence in the administrative record. Kornecky v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 167 Fed.Appx. 496, 508 (6th Cir. 2006) (“[a]n ALJ can consider all the evidence without directly addressing in his written decision every piece of evidence submitted by a party.”) (internal citation marks omitted); see also Van Der Maas v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 198 Fed.Appx. 521, 526 (6th Cir. 2006).

         B. Governing Law

         The “[c]laimant bears the burden of proving his entitlement to benefits.” Boyes v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 46 F.3d 510, 512 (6th Cir. 1994); accord, Bartyzel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 74 Fed.Appx. 515, 524 (6th Cir. 2003). There are several benefits programs under the Act, including the Disability Insurance Benefits Program of Title II (42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq.) and the Supplemental Security Income Program of Title XVI (42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq.). Title II benefits are available to qualifying wage earners who become disabled prior to the expiration of their insured status; Title XVI benefits are available to poverty-stricken adults and children who become disabled. F. Bloch, Federal Disability Law and Practice § 1.1 (1984). While the two programs have different eligibility requirements, “DIB and SSI are available only for those who have a ‘disability.'” Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). “Disability” means:

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 ...

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