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Heydenburg v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 12, 2019

Shawn Heydenburg, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Hon. Janet T. Neff, Judge

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          PHILLIP J. GREEN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This is an action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiffs claim for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Section 405(g) limits the Court to a review of the administrative record and provides that if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it shall be conclusive. For the reasons articulated herein, the undersigned recommends that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court's jurisdiction is confined to a review of the Commissioner's decision and of the record made in the administrative hearing process. See Willbanks v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 847 F.2d 301, 303 (6th Cir. 1988). The scope of judicial review in a social security case is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards in making her decision and whether there exists in the record substantial evidence supporting that decision. See Brainard v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 1989).

         The Court may not conduct a de novo review of the case, resolve evidentiary conflicts, or decide questions of credibility. See Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). It is the Commissioner who is charged with finding the facts relevant to an application for disability benefits, and her findings are conclusive provided they are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. See Cohen v. Sec'y of Dept of Health and Human Services, 964 F.2d 524, 528 (6th Cir. 1992) (citations omitted). It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Bogle v. Sullivan, 998 F.2d 342, 347 (6th Cir. 1993). In determining the substantiality of the evidence, the Court must consider the evidence on the record as a whole and take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight. See Richardson v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 735 F.2d 962, 963 (6th Cir. 1984).

         As has been widely recognized, the substantial evidence standard presupposes the existence of a zone within which the decision maker can properly rule either way, without judicial interference. See Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (citation omitted). This standard affords to the administrative decision maker considerable latitude, and indicates that a decision supported by substantial evidence will not be reversed simply because the evidence would have supported a contrary decision. See Bogle, 998 F.2d at 347; Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was 24 years of age on his alleged disability onset date. (ECF No. 10-6, PageID.205, 220). He successfully completed high school and worked previously as a shipping/receiving clerk. (ECF No. 10-2, PageID.56). Plaintiff applied for benefits on July 31, 2013, alleging that he had been disabled since July 31, 2011, due to narcolepsy, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, and knee, back, and wrist pain. (ECF No. 10-6, 10-7, PageID.205-10, 220, 222).

         Plaintiffs application was denied, after which time he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (ECF No. 10-4, 10-5, PageID. 170-204). On May 17, 2017, Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Michael Condon, with testimony being offered by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (ECF No. 10-3, PageID.80-133). In a written decision dated August 9, 2017, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id., PageID.44-57). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's determination, rendering it the Commissioner's final decision in the matter. (Id., PageID.33-38). Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision.

         ANALYSIS OF THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The social security regulations articulate a five-step sequential process for evaluating disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a-f), 416.920(a-f). If the Commissioner can make a dispositive finding at any point in the review, no further finding is required. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). The regulations also provide that if a claimant suffers from a nonexertional impairment as well as an exertional impairment, both are considered in determining his residual functional capacity. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945.

         The burden of establishing the right to benefits rests squarely on Plaintiffs shoulders. He can satisfy his burden by demonstrating that his impairments are so severe that he is unable to perform his previous work, and cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, perform any other substantial gainful employment existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); Cohen, 964 F.2d at 528. While the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five of the sequential evaluation process, Plaintiff bears the burden of proof through step four of the procedure, the point at which his residual functioning capacity (RFC) is determined. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Walters v. Commr of Soc. Sec, 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997) (ALJ determines RFC at step four, at which point claimant bears the burden of proof).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from: (1) status-post right wrist fracture/surgery; (2) history of narcolepsy; (3) headaches; (4) attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); (5) major depressive disorder/affective disorder; (6) anxiety disorder/generalized anxiety disorder; and (7) insomnia, severe impairments that whether considered alone or in combination with other impairments, failed to satisfy the requirements of any impairment identified in the Listing of Impairments detailed in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (PageID.46-49).

         With respect to Plaintiffs residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform medium work subject to the following limitations: (1) he can lift/carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; (2) during an 8-hour workday, he can sit for 8 hours and stand/walk for 8 hours; (3) he can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps/stairs; (4) he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (5) he can frequently grip and grasp with his right upper extremity; (6) he cannot be exposed to hazards such as unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, or moving machinery; (7) he cannot operate motor vehicles; (8) he can occasionally operate leg or foot controls bilaterally; (9) he is limited to simple, routine work that involves making simple work-related decisions; and (10) he can tolerate occasional workplace changes. (Id., PageID.49-50).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work at which point the burden of proof shifted to the Commissioner to establish by substantial evidence that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy which Plaintiff could perform, his limitations notwithstanding. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. While the ALJ is not required to question a vocational expert on this issue, "a finding supported by substantial evidence that a claimant has the vocational qualifications to perform specific jobs" is needed to meet the burden. OBanner v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 587 F.2d 321, 323 (6th Cir. 1978) (emphasis added).

         This standard requires more than mere intuition or conjecture by the ALJ that the claimant can perform specific jobs in the national economy. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. Accordingly, ALJs routinely question vocational experts in an attempt to determine whether there exist a significant number of jobs which a particular claimant can perform, his limitations notwithstanding. Such was the case here, as the ALJ questioned a vocational expert. The vocational expert testified that there existed approximately 895, 000 jobs in the national economy which an individual with Plaintiffs RFC could perform, such limitations notwithstanding. (Id., PageID.123-32). This represents a significant number of jobs. See, e.g., Taskila v. Commissioner of ...


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