United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division
DEBORAH A. GILLIAM, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
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
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
Introduction and Procedural History
applied for DWB on November 24, 2014, asserting she became
disabled on January 1, 2014, (R. 7, PageID.181),
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
Standard of Review
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).
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
Framework for Disability Determinations
benefits are available only to those with a
“disability.” Colvin v. Barnhart, 475
F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). “Disability” means
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).
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)).
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.
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.)
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.)
Overview of the Medical Evidence
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.
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.”
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.
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.) 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.)
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 ...