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Bjornson v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 31, 2019

CYNTHIA JEAN BJORNSON, Plaintiff
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          HONORABLE ARTHUR J. TARNOW JUDGE

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [ECF. NOS. 9, 11]

          ELIZABETH A. STAFFORD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Cynthia Jean Bjornson appeals a final decision of defendant Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under the Social Security Act. Both parties have filed summary judgment motions, referred to this Court for a report and recommendation under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). After review of the record, the Court finds that the administrative law judge's (ALJ) decision is supported by substantial evidence, and thus RECOMMENDS that:

• the Commissioner's motion [ECF No. 11] be GRANTED;
• Bjornson's motion [ECF No. 9] be DENIED; and
• the Commissioner's decision be AFFIRMED under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Bjornson's Background and Disability Application

         Born July 24, 1959, Bjornson was 56 years old when she submitted her application for disability benefits in February 2016. [ECF No. 7-5, Tr. 158]. She has past relevant work experience as an elementary school teacher. [ECF No. 7-2, Tr. 24]. Bjornson alleged a disability onset date of November 30, 2015. [ECF No. 7-2, Tr. 17, 38]. She claims to be disabled because of stage III breast cancer, [1] physical complication from cancer treatment, cognitive complications from cancer treatment, fatigue, nausea and depression. [ECF No. 7-3, Tr. 70]. Bjornson's last insured date was December 31, 2019. [ECF No. 7-6, Tr. 175].

         After a hearing on November 1, 2017, during which Bjornson and a vocational expert (VE) testified, the ALJ found that Bjornson was not disabled. [ECF No. 7-2, Tr. 25, 30-68]. The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [Id., Tr. 1-3]. Bjornson timely filed for judicial review. [ECF No. 1].

         B. The ALJ's Application of the Disability Framework Analysis

         A “disability” is 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Commissioner determines whether an applicant is disabled by analyzing five sequential steps. First, if the applicant is “doing substantial gainful activity, ” he or she will be found not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). Second, if the claimant has not had a severe impairment or a combination of such impairments[2] for a continuous period of at least 12 months, no disability will be found. Id. Third, if the claimant's severe impairments meet or equal the criteria of an impairment set forth in the Commissioner's Listing of Impairments, the claimant will be found disabled. Id. If the fourth step is reached, the Commissioner considers its assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), and will find the claimant not disabled if he or she can still do past relevant work. Id. At the final step, the Commissioner reviews the claimant's RFC, age, education and work experiences, and determines whether the claimant could adjust to other work. Id. The claimant bears the burden of proof throughout the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner if the fifth step is reached. Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).

         Applying this framework, the ALJ concluded that Bjornson was not disabled. At the first step, she found that Bjornson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 30, 2015. [ECF No. 7-2, Tr. 17]. At the second step, she found that Bjornson had the severe impairments of “invasive ductal carcinoma of right breast with metastasis to axillary lymph nodes and degenerative joint disease of the knees, multilevel spine, right shoulder and feet.” [Id., Tr. 18]. Next, the ALJ concluded that ...


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