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Schwartz v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

August 1, 2019


          Matthew F. Leitman, District Judge



         I. RECOMMENDATION: For the reasons that follow, it is RECOMMENDED that the Court DENY Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (DE 11), GRANT Defendant's motion for summary judgment (DE 12), and AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

         II. REPORT

         Plaintiff, Kimberly Schwartz, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1383(3) for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge for a Report and Recommendation on Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (DE 11), the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment (DE 12), Plaintiff's reply (DE 14) and the administrative record (DE 9).

         A. Background and Administrative History

         Plaintiff alleges her disability began on May 1, 2003, at the age of 36 (R. at 154); however, as recognized by the ALJ and the parties here, regardless of her alleged onset date, the earliest Plaintiff could be found disabled for purposes of SSI is August 2015, the month after she applied. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.330(a). The ALJ therefore considered whether Plaintiff was disabled only as of July 30, 2015, her application date. (R. at 16, 31.) In her disability report, she lists manic bi-polar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, acute chronic respiratory failure, a bad right shoulder, a bulging disc in her back, and a bad right knee as limiting her ability to work. (R. at 201.) Her application was denied in May 31, 2016. (R. at 121.)

         Plaintiff requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. at 132-134.) On November 8, 2017, ALJ Bill Laskaris held a video hearing, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE), Timothy M. Bobrowski, testified. (R. at 56-93.) On March 13, 2018, ALJ Laskaris issued an opinion, which determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 10-35.)

         Plaintiff submitted a request for review of the hearing decision/order. (R. at 9.) However, on May 23, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 1-6.) Thus, ALJ Laskaris's decision became the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff timely commenced the instant action on July 13, 2018.

         B. Plaintiff's Medical History

         The administrative record contains approximately 508 pages of medical records, which were available to the ALJ at the time of his March 13, 2018 decision. (R. at 262-770 [Exhibits 1F-19F].) These materials will be discussed in detail, as necessary, below.

         C. The Administrative Decision

         Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4), at Step 1 of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 30, 2015, the application date. (R. at 16.) At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative joint disease, status post fracture of greater tuberosity of humerus, hill sachs deformity, degenerative disc disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and alcohol use dependence, in remission. (Id. at 16-17.) At Step 3, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (Id. at 17-21.) Between Steps 3 and 4 of the sequential process, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[1] and determined that Plaintiff had the RFC:

. . . to perform light work…except she could occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds as well as occasionally climb ramps and stairs [i.e., exertional limitations]. She could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl [i.e., postural limitations]. She should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, wetness, or humidity. She should avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poorly ventilated areas [i.e., environmental limitations]. The claimant's work is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements and involving only simple, work-related decisions with few, if any, work place changes. She should have only brief and superficial interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors [i.e., mental health limitations].

(Id. at 21-29.) At Step 4, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 29-30.) At Step 5, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, such as routing clerk, mail sorter, and library assistant. (Id. at 30-31.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since July 30, 2015. (Id. at 31.)

         D. Standard of Review

         The District Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). When reviewing a case under the Social Security Act, the Court “must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it ‘is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.'” Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. at 2009) (quoting Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. at 2007)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”). Under this standard, “substantial evidence is defined as ‘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, 486 F.3d at 241 (quoting Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994)). In deciding whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the court does “not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence or decide questions of credibility.” Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007); Rogers, 486 F.3d at 247 (“It is of course for the ALJ, and not the reviewing court, to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, including that of the claimant.”).

         Although the substantial evidence standard is deferential, it is not trivial. The Court must “‘take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from [the] weight'” of the Commissioner's decision. TNS, Inc. v. NLRB, 296 F.3d 384, 395 (6th Cir. 2002) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 487 (1951)). Nevertheless, “if substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, this Court defers to that finding ‘even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion.'” Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 406 (quoting Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)). Finally, even if the ALJ's decision meets the substantial evidence standard, “‘a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the SSA fails to follow its own ...

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