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Mata v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

August 14, 2019

LORI ANN MATA, Plaintiff,

          Judge David M. Lawson




         For the reasons that follow, it is RECOMMENDED that the Court DENY Plaintiff's motion to remand pursuant to Sentences Four and Six (DE 15), GRANT Defendant's motion for summary judgment (DE 17), and AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

         II. REPORT

         Plaintiff, Lori Ann Mata, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for Disability Insurance (DI) benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge for a Report and Recommendation on Plaintiff's motion to remand pursuant to Sentences Four and Six (DE 15), the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment (DE 17), Plaintiff's reply (DE 18) and the administrative record (DE 11).

         A. Background and Administrative History

         Plaintiff filed her applications for DI and SSI benefits on January 23, 2015, initially alleging a disability onset date of December 22, 2011. (R. at 202-13.) She subsequently amended her alleged onset date to October 15, 2014. (R. at 227.) In her disability report, Plaintiff lists bipolar disorder, major depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and personality disorder as limiting her ability to work. (R. at 249.) Her applications were denied in August 11, 2015. (R. at 108-131.)

         Plaintiff requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. at 150-151.) On July 25, 2017, ALJ JoErin O'Leary held a hearing, at which Plaintiff, her mother, and a vocational expert (VE), Sue Lyon, testified. (R. at 42-87.) On October 11, 2017, ALJ O'Leary issued an opinion, which determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 14-41.)

         Plaintiff submitted a request for review of the hearing decision/order. (R. at 200-201.) However, on May 24, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 1-7.) Thus, ALJ O'Leary's decision became the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff timely commenced the instant action on July 5, 2018.

         B. Plaintiff's Medical History

         The administrative record contains approximately 1, 011 pages of medical records, which were available to the ALJ at the time of her October 11, 2017 decision. (R. at 339-1, 350 [Exhibits B1F-B36F].) These materials will be discussed in detail, as necessary, below.

         C. The Administrative Decision

         1. The five-step analysis and RFC

         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 October 15, 2014, the amended alleged onset date. (R. at 20.) At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: gastroparesis, bilateral knee osteoarthritis, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic disorder. (Id. at 20-21.) 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 21-23.) 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] must have access to restroom facilities, so no outdoor work. [i.e. environmental limitations] She can perform simple tasks. The claimant can work alone or in small, familiar groups. She can tolerate occasional interaction with the public. She cannot perform production rate work. [i.e, mental limitations] She must avoid hazards such as unprotected heights or dangerous moving machinery. [i.e., environmental limitations] The claimant will be expected to miss one day of work every month. [i.e. non-exertional limitation]

(Id. at 23-32.) At Step 4, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 32-33.) 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 general office clerk, bench or table assembler, and packer. (Id. at 33-34.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since October 15, 2014. (Id. at 34.)

         2. “Fresh look” on remand

         In her opinion, ALJ O'Leary recognized that Plaintiff previously filed applications for DI and SSI benefits which were denied by a different ALJ on May 16, 2013 (R. at 18, citing R. at 88-106), but then found that she is not bound to that prior decision under Drummond v. Commissioner of Social Security, 126 F.3d 837 (6th Cir. 1997) because there is new and material evidence justifying a change in Plaintiff's RFC, although she found that there is no new and material evidence concerning Plaintiff's past relevant employment and therefore adopted the prior decision's finding with regard to that step. (R. at 18.) The Sixth Circuit recently modified the Drummond holding in Early v. Commissioner of Social Security, 893 F.3d 929 (6th Cir. 2018), which holds that principles of res judicata “do not prevent the agency from giving a fresh look to a new application containing new evidence or satisfying a new regulatory threshold that covers a new period of alleged disability while being mindful of past rulings and the record in prior proceedings.” Id. at 931. Having determined that she was not bound by any prior decision with regard to Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ here gave the evidence in the record a “fresh look, ” thus satisfying Early. See Kimball v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 17-12659, 2018 WL 4102845, at *5 n.4 (E.D. Mich. Aug. 7, 2018) (finding Early did not change the Court's analysis of pre-Early ALJ decision because the ALJ had concluded she was not bound by the previous RFC due to new and material evidence), report and recommendation adopted, 2018 WL 4095081 (E.D. Mich. Aug. 28, 2018).

         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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