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Pearl v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 24, 2019


          Patricia T. Morris Magistrate Judge.


          DAVID M. LAWSON United States District Judge.

         The plaintiff filed the present action seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The case was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Patricia T. Morris 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 Morris filed a report on June 19, 2019 recommending that the defendant's motion for summary judgment be granted, the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be denied, and the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed. The plaintiff filed timely objections, and the defendant filed a response. The matter is now before the Court.

         The plaintiff, who is now 39 years old, filed her application for SSI benefits on April 29, 2014, when she was 34. In the application that is the subject of the present appeal, the plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of June 1, 2012. The plaintiff alleged disability due to closed head injury, back and neck pain, memory loss, dizziness, severe migraine headaches, concentration issues, and radiculothapy in the neck, upper back, lower back, and cervical spine.

         The plaintiff's application for SSI benefits was denied initially on October 10, 2014. She timely filed a request for an administrative hearing, and on October 23, 2015, the plaintiff appeared before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) David F. Neumann. On March 1, 2016, ALJ Neumann issued a written decision in which he found that the plaintiff was not disabled. The plaintiff appealed, and on May 15, 2017, the Appeals Council remanded the case because ALJ Neumann relied on new evidence in his determination that was not presented during the hearing and without affording the plaintiff an opportunity to respond to that evidence or request a supplemental hearing. The Appeals Council also found that ALJ Neumann did not indicate adequately in his written decision which findings from a prior hearing on May 26, 2011 remain binding, noting that the residual functional capacity (RFC) determination in his decision did not match the RFC finding in the earlier decision. The Appeals Council directed the ALJ on remand to allow the plaintiff to review and comment on the new evidence and to include decisional language explaining which findings from the prior decision remain binding.

         On October 4, 2017, the plaintiff appeared before ALJ Therese Tobin for a second hearing, consistent with the Appeals Council's directives. On November 17, 2017, ALJ Tobin determined that the plaintiff was not disabled. On August 8, 2018, the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review of ALJ Tobin's decision. The plaintiff filed her complaint seeking judicial review on August 30, 2018.

         ALJ Tobin 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 April 29, 2014 (step one); the plaintiff suffered from closed head injury, neck and back disorder, migraine headaches, degenerative joint disease of the wrist and knees, depression, status post surgery of right ureteral stricture, severe cervical sprain with radiculopathy, severe lumbar sprain with radiculopathy, thoracic radiculitis, anxiety, restless leg syndrome, and joint pain in hands bilaterally, 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 to perform a limited range of light work. The ALJ found that the plaintiff frequently can reach in all directions bilaterally; handle, finger, and feel bilaterally; push and pull bilaterally; and use foot controls bilaterally. The plaintiff also occasionally could climb ramps and stairs, but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally could balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; should avoid exposure to unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts; should avoid concentrated exposure to vibrations, humidity, wetness, extreme cold, extreme heat, fumes, odors, dusts, and pulmonary irritants; should limit herself to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, but not at a production rate pace; should use judgment and deal with changes in the work setting limited to simple work related decisions; and requires a sit-stand option permitting change in position if needed and without disturbing the workplace.

         At step four, the ALJ found that the plaintiff could not perform the duties required for her past relevant work as a call center clerk, a sedentary, semiskilled job 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 hand packager, with 80, 000 jobs existing nationally; small products assembler, with 80, 000 jobs existing nationally; and visual inspector, with 80, 000 jobs existing nationally. Based on those findings and using Medical Vocational Rule 202.21 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 her motion for summary judgment. First, she argued that the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to comply with the Appeals Council's remand order, contending that the ALJ did not consider properly the plaintiff's new uterine conditions and resulting complications. Second, the plaintiff argued that the ALJ disregarded evidence that the plaintiff cannot stand or walk for most of an eight-hour workday, undermining a finding that the plaintiff can perform light work. And third, the plaintiff argued that the ALJ failed to weigh adequately the medical evidence bearing on the plaintiff's mental RFC as required by SSR 96-8p and SSR 85-15. In a comprehensive and thorough report, the magistrate judge rejected each of these arguments.

         The plaintiff filed three objections to the magistrate judge's report and recommendation, two of which parroted her summary judgment arguments. 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 the magistrate judge in order to determine whether the recommendation should be accepted, rejected, or modified in whole or in part. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         “The filing of objections provides the district court with the opportunity to consider the specific contentions of the parties and to correct any errors immediately, ” Walters, 638 F.2d at 950, enabling the court “to focus attention on those issues-factual and legal-that are at the heart of the parties' dispute, ” Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 147 (1985). As a result, “‘[o]nly those specific objections to the magistrate's report made to the district court will be preserved for appellate review; making some objections but failing to raise others will not preserve all the objections a party may ...

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