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Coyer v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

July 9, 2019


          Mark A. Goldsmith Judge



         I. RECOMMENDATION: For the reasons that follow, it is RECOMMENDED that the Court DENY Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (DE 11), GRANT Defendant's motion for summary judgment (DE 12), and AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

         II. REPORT

         Plaintiff, Stacy Lynn Coyer, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for disability insurance (DI) and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits. This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge for a Report and Recommendation on Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (DE 11), the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment (DE 12), and the administrative record (DE 9).

         A. Background and Administrative History

         Plaintiff alleges her disability began on November 16, 2013, at the age of 39. (R. at 169, 176.) In her disability report, she lists several physical conditions (e.g., pain and nerve damage) as limiting her ability to work. (R. at 231.) Her applications were denied on September 30, 2014. (R. at 88-121.)

         Plaintiff requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. at 122-123.) On October 20, 2016, ALJ Sarah Zimmerman held a hearing, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE), Susan Lion, testified. (R. at 42-87.) On March 10, 2017, ALJ Zimmerman issued an opinion, which determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 15-41.)

         Plaintiff submitted a request for review of the hearing decision/order. (R. at 165-166.) However, on February 8, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 1-7.) Thus, ALJ Zimmerman's decision became the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff timely commenced the instant action on April 3, 2018.

         B. Plaintiff's Medical History

         The administrative record contains approximately 1, 040 pages of medical records, which were available to the ALJ at the time of her March 10, 2017 decision. (R. at 41, 342-1381 [Exhibits 1F-45F].) These materials will be discussed in detail, as necessary, below.

         C. The Administrative Decision

         Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4), at Step 1 of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 16, 2013, the alleged onset date. (R. at 20-21.) At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease (DDD) of the cervical and lumbar spine, right lateral epicondylitis status post extensor carpi radialis brevis (ECRB) debridement, right radial tunnel syndrome status post release, allergic rhinitis, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. (Id. at 21.) At Step 3, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (Id. at 21-24.) Between Steps 3 and 4 of the sequential process, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[1] and determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to “lift and/or carry up to 10 pounds frequently and up to 20 pounds occasionally[, ]” with certain other exertional, postural, manipulative, environmental, and mental health limitations. (Id. at 24-31.) At Step 4, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 31-32.) At Step 5, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ determined that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, such as a general office clerk, an assembler performed at a bench or table, and a packager performed at a bench or table. (Id. at 32-33.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from November 16, 2013, through the date of the decision. (Id. at 33.)

         D. Standard of Review

          The District Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). When reviewing a case under the Social Security Act, the Court “must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it ‘is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.'” Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. at 2009) (quoting Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. at 2007)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”). Under this standard, “substantial evidence is defined as ‘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 (quoting Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994)). 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); Rogers, 486 F.3d at 247 (“It is of course for the ALJ, and not the reviewing court, to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, including that of the claimant.”).

         Although the substantial evidence standard is deferential, it is not trivial. The Court must “‘take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from [the] weight'” of the Commissioner's decision. TNS, Inc. v. NLRB, 296 F.3d 384, 395 (6th Cir. 2002) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 487 (1951)). Nevertheless, “if substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, this Court defers to that finding ‘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 (quoting Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)). Finally, even if the ALJ's decision meets the substantial evidence standard, “‘a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the SSA [Social Security Administration] fails to follow its own regulations and where that error prejudices a claimant on the merits or deprives the claimant of a substantial right.'” Rabbers, 582 F.3d at 651 (quoting Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007)).

         E. Analysis

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in her assessment of Plaintiff's RFC, for various reasons. (DE 11 at 6-9.) The Commissioner contends that “substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.” (DE 12 at 6-17.)

         1. Exertional limitations

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's exertional limitations included lifting and/or carrying up to 10 pounds frequently and up to 20 pounds occasionally. (R. at 24.) These are consistent with the lifting and carrying limitations of light work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) (“Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds.”).

         In support of her argument that she “cannot lift 20 pounds occasionally[, ]” Plaintiff claims that the ALJ did not take into consideration the August 19, 2014 electromyogram report, which reflects: (a) Plaintiff's report of right arm numbness and weakness, as well as “pain and swelling of the arm with limitation in use from the pain[, ]” seemingly for three days, which followed having lifted 20 pound items; and, (b) Dr. Khan's impression that “[b]ased on the history that this all started a day after being involved in heavy strenuous activity, this may be relevant to stretch injury of the brachial plexus.” (DE 11 at 6, R. at 682-683.) However, the ALJ twice cites this electromyogram report in the RFC discussion. (DE 11 at 6; R. at 25, 27.) More to the point, even though Plaintiff has cited one piece of evidence that she “injures herself when lifting 20 pounds . . . [, ]” this does not obligate the Commissioner to conclude that Plaintiff “cannot lift 20 pounds occasionally.” (DE 11 at 6.) Support for the ALJ's lifting limitation is found in records that post-date Plaintiffs September 29, 2014 right lateral epicondylitis-debridement (ECRB debridement) (R. at 859), and August 27, 2015 right radial tunnel release (R. at 857), such as:

• Dr. Taha's December 17, 2014 notes, which reflect Plaintiff's report that she “has been doing quite well from the elbow standpoint . . . [, ]” and a physical examination revealing “full range of motion, ...

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