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Gilliam v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 10, 2019

DEBORAH A. GILLIAM, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          PAUL D. BORMAN DISTRICT JUDGE.

          MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (R. 10, 11)

          Patricia T. Morris United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. RECOMMENDATION

         The Commissioner denied Plaintiff Deborah A. Gilliam's claim for Disabled Widow's Benefits (DWB). See 42 U.S.C. § 402(e); 20 C.F.R. § 404.335. For the reasons that follow, I RECOMMEND DENYING Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (R. 10), GRANTING the Commissioner's Motion, (R. 11), and AFFIRMING the Commissioner's final decision.

         II. REPORT

         A. Introduction and Procedural History[1]

         Gilliam applied for DWB on November 24, 2014, asserting she became disabled on January 1, 2014, (R. 7, PageID.181), [2] but she later amended the onset date to January 20, 2016, (id., PageID.194.) The claim was initially denied. (Id., PageID.120.) She then sought and received a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), which occurred on April 18, 2017. (Id., PageID.53-104.) In a decision dated June 1, 2017, the ALJ found Gilliam was not disabled. (Id., PageID.40-48.) When the Appeals Council subsequently denied her request for review, the ALJ's findings became the final decision subject to judicial review. (Id., PageID.26-28.) Then came this lawsuit and the cross-motions for summary judgment. (R. 1, 10, 11.) The briefing is complete and the case is ready for resolution.

         B. Standard of Review

         The district court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The district court's review is restricted solely to determining whether the “Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.” Sullivan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 595 F App'x. 502, 506 (6th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks 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 quotation marks omitted).

         The Court must examine the administrative record as a whole, and may consider any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the ALJ. See Walker v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 884 F.2d 241, 245 (6th Cir. 1989). The Court will not “try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor decide questions of credibility.” Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). 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.” Id. at 286 (internal citations omitted).

         C. Framework for Disability Determinations

         Disability benefits are available only to those with a “disability.” Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). “Disability” means 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 [twelve] months.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Commissioner's regulations provide that disability is to be determined through the application of a five-step sequential analysis:

(i) At the first step, we consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled.
(ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement . . . or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled.
(iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled.
(iv) At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled.
(v) At the fifth and last step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your age, education, and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you cannot make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are disabled.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001).

         “Through step four, the claimant bears the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused by [his or] her impairments and the fact that [he or] she is precluded from performing [his or] her past relevant work.” Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). The burden transfers to the Commissioner if the analysis reaches the fifth step without a finding that the claimant is not disabled. Combs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 459 F.3d 640, 643 (6th Cir. 2006). At the fifth step, the Commissioner is required to show that “other jobs in significant numbers exist in the national economy that [the claimant] could perform given [his or] her RFC [residual functional capacity] and considering relevant vocational factors.” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), (g)).

         In addition to proving disability as defined above, a widow seeking to qualify for DWB must also show that (1) she is the widow of a wage earner who died fully insured, (2) she is at least 50 years old but not yet 60 (if the claimant is 60 or over, different rules apply), and (3) her disability began before the prescribed period ended. 42 U.S.C. § 402(e); 20 C.F.R. § 404.355; Foster v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 15-11133, 2016 WL 8114193, at *2 (E.D. Mich. April 6, 2016), rep. & rec. adopted by 2016 WL 4072475 (E.D. Mich. Aug. 1, 2016). None of these requirements is at issue here.

         D. ALJ Findings

         Following the five-step sequential analysis, the ALJ determined that Gilliam was not disabled. (R. 7, at PageID.48.) At step one, the ALJ found that Gilliam met all the non-disability requirements for DWB benefits and had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since her amended onset date. (Id., PageID.42.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Gilliam had the following severe impairments: “left ankle fracture status post ORIF; depression; anxiety; posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); osteoarthritis; and substance abuse.” (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that these impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment. (Id., at PageID.43-44.)

         Before proceeding to the final steps, the ALJ found that Gilliam could perform light-exertional work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with a few additional restrictions: “she needs a sit/stand option at will; can frequently push/pull with her left leg; occasionally climb, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; frequently balance; in simple, routine, repetitive work; with occasional public interaction.” (Id., PageID.44-45.) At step four, the ALJ found that Gilliam had no past relevant work. (Id., at PageID.46.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined that Gilliam could perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. (Id., PageID.47.)

         E. Administrative Record

         1. Overview of the Medical Evidence

         I have reviewed the entire administrative record, which lumbers to over 1500 pages. Because Gilliam's arguments target two narrow aspects of the ALJ's decision, I will not recount the medical evidence here but instead discuss it as necessary in the analysis that follows.

         2. Application Reports

         In her undated disability report, Gilliam listed a host of conditions that limited her ability to work: in addition to those mentioned in the ALJ's decision (noted above), she claimed to have bipolar disorder, headaches, swelling, hypothyroidism, hypertension, Factor V Leiden, rheumatoid arthritis, and “joint/[k]nee/hip/ankle pain.” (R. 7, PageID.200.) Elaborating, she explained that she could not “stand, lift, bend, walk for any length or even sit for extended periods without moving around and lying down. . . . I feel so weak and simple things wear me out.” (Id., PageID.208.)

         She stopped working in August 2009 due to both her mental and physical states. (Id., PageID.201-02.) At that last job, she was a safety monitor for a roofing company. (Id., PageID.202.) The position required her to lift up to 50 pounds and frequently (i.e., up to two-thirds of the workday) lift 30, as well as stoop, kneel, crouch, stand, and walk for hours each day. (Id.) Before that job, she had not worked for 15 years. (Id.)

         Gilliam completed an Adult Function Form in January 2015. (Id., PageID.229, 236.) In it, she recounted a long history of mental illness stemming from childhood abuse. (Id.) As recently as January 2014, she “was hospitalized for another suicide attempt.” (Id.) She again noted her chronic physical ailments, which exacerbated her depression and anxiety, as well as her need to lie down throughout the day and the severe pain she experienced. (Id.) Finding a comfortable sleep position was difficult due to her pain, and so she often was poorly rested. (Id., PageID.230.) Her pain also slowed down her personal care routine, which she ignored altogether when she was depressed. (Id.) Cooking, too, took time and was limited to simple fare like sandwiches; her inability to lift, along with her general pain, prevented her from preparing complete meals. (Id., PageID.231.) For these same reasons, others had to take care of household and outdoor chores. (Id., PageID.231-32.) She could drive short distances and also ride in a car, and she could get around alone but preferred company. (Id., PageID.232.)[3] Handling finances was difficult, and she required assistance. (Id.) She had no hobbies and her social life suffered during bouts of depression or anxiety. (Id., PageID.233.)

         Gilliam's conditions affected almost every “ability” related to work, including lifting, squatting, bending, standing, reaching, walking, sitting, kneeling, remembering, understanding, and using her hands. (Id., PageID.234.) More particularly, her ability to walk varied, and she used a cane when needed; she ...


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