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Anthony v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 23, 2019

MARK A. ANTHONY, Plaintiff,

          Elizabeth A. Stafford Magistrate Judge



         The plaintiff filed the present action seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying his claim for supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The case was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Stafford under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and E.D. Mich. LR 72.1(b)(3). Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment to reverse the decision of the Commissioner and remand the case for an award of benefits or for further consideration by the administrative law judge. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment requesting affirmance of the decision of the Commissioner.

         Magistrate Judge Stafford filed a report on June 18, 2019 recommending that the defendant's motion for summary judgment be denied, the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be granted, and the matter be remanded for further consideration. The Commissioner filed timely objections, and the plaintiff filed a response. The matter is now before the Court.

         The plaintiff, who is now 52 years old, filed his application for SSI benefits on March 23, 2015, when he was 48. In the application that is the subject of the present appeal, the plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of January 1, 2013. The plaintiff alleged disability due to brain damage, lower back pain, left shoulder pain, abdominal pain, and learning disabilities.

         The plaintiff's application for disability benefits was denied initially on August 20, 2015. He timely filed a request for an administrative hearing, and on March 16, 2017, the plaintiff appeared before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Lauren G. Burstein. On June 7, 2017, ALJ Burstein issued a written decision in which she found that the plaintiff was not disabled. On March 5, 2018, the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. The plaintiff then filed his complaint seeking judicial review.

         ALJ Burstein reached her conclusion that the plaintiff was not disabled by applying the five-step sequential analysis prescribed by the Secretary in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). She found that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 23, 2015 (step one); the plaintiff suffered from learning disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, osteoarthritis of the left shoulder, and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, impairments which were “severe” within the meaning of the Social Security Act (step two); and that none of those impairments alone or in combination met or equaled a listing in the regulations (step three).

         Before proceeding further, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff retained the functional capacity (RFC) to perform a limited range of light work. The ALJ found that the plaintiff: (1) never could climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (2) occasionally could stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps or stairs; (3) only occasionally could perform overhead reaching with his left upper extremity; (4) would be limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks in low stress environments involving only simple, work-related decision making and little to no changes in work setting or routine; and (5) requires the option to alternate between sitting and standing, spending no more than 20 minutes in each position.

         At step four, she found that the plaintiff could not perform the duties required for his past relevant work as a painter, which requires medium work as generally and actually performed.

         In applying the fifth step, the ALJ considered the testimony of a vocational expert, who stated that even with these limitations, the plaintiff could perform jobs such as machine tender, with 101, 000 jobs existing nationally; line attendant, with 125, 000 jobs existing nationally; and packager, with 122, 000 jobs existing nationally. Based on those findings and using Medical Vocational Rule 202.21 and 202.14 as a framework, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

         The plaintiff raised three arguments in his motion for summary judgment before the magistrate judge. Two related to the ALJ's evaluation of the medical evidence: the ALJ improperly rejected the assessments of the consultative psychiatric examiner and neuropsychologist who had examined the plaintiff, and instead she afforded greater weight to the State agency psychologist who never saw the plaintiff and whose review of the case record was not comprehensive; and that the ALJ did not fairly consider all relevant factors in assessing the plaintiff's subjective symptoms. The plaintiff also argued that the ALJ incorrectly considered his impairments under Listing 12.11 and failed to give proper weight to the evidence when determining whether the plaintiff met the “B” criteria.

         The magistrate judge found merit in the plaintiff's arguments addressing the manner in which the AJL considered the medical evidence and the step-three consideration of Listing 12.11.

         The magistrate judge concluded that the ALJ erred by preferring the opinion of the non-examining consultant, Rom Kriauciunas, Ph.D., over the opinion of the examining consultant, neuropsychologist Darren Fuerst, Ph.D. The magistrate judge explained that Dr. Feurst's opinion that the plaintiff suffers from a learning disability that imposes severe limitations on his ability to work was supported by extensive diagnostic testing. The magistrate judge also noted that Dr. Feurst's opinions were more consistent with the findings of Dr. L. Imasa, the examining consultative psychiatric, and the record as a whole, unlike the opinions of Dr. Kriauciunas, who completed his evaluation four months before Dr. Feurst examined and tested the plaintiff. The magistrate judge further concluded that remand for proper evaluation of examining and nonexamining sources is especially warranted because affording Dr. Feurst's opinion due credit would result in the plaintiff meeting the criteria of Listing 12.11. The magistrate judge noted that Dr. Feurst's assessment reflects an extreme limitation in the plaintiff's ability to concentrate and marked limitations in his ability to interact and process information. The magistrate judge also found that the ALJ should have obtained a medical opinion on medical equivalency because the evidence could reasonably support a finding that the plaintiff's impairments medically equaled an impairment under Listing 12.11, noting that Dr. Kriauciunas never evaluated the plaintiff's impairments under Listing 12.11.

         The Commissioner filed two objections to the magistrate judge's report and recommendation. The filing of timely objections to a report and recommendation requires the court to “make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667 (1980); United States v. Walters, 638 F.2d 947 (6th Cir. 1981). This de novo review requires the court to re-examine all of the relevant evidence previously reviewed by ...

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