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Dobbs v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

August 19, 2019


          Thomas L. Ludington, District Judge



         I. RECOMMENDATION: For the reasons that follow, it is RECOMMENDED that the Court DENY Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (DE 19), GRANT Defendant's motion for summary judgment (DE 21), and AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

         II. REPORT

         Plaintiff, Ericka Melanie Dobbs, 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 (SI) benefits. This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge for a Report and Recommendation on Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (DE 19), the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment (DE 21), Plaintiff's reply (DE 23) and the administrative record (DE 14).

         A. Background and Administrative History

         Plaintiff alleges her disability began on January 1, 2004, at the age of 22. (R. at 217.) Plaintiff subsequently amended the alleged onset date to September 21, 2011. (R. at 683.) In her disability report, she lists back injury, migraines, nerve damage, endometriosis, and insomnia as limiting her ability to work. (R. at 222.) Her applications were denied on August 8, 2016. (R. at 87-114.)

         Plaintiff requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. at 153-154.) On November 15, 2017, ALJ John Dodson held a hearing, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE), Kelly A. Stroker, testified. (R. at 28-64.) On January 4, 2018, ALJ Dodson issued an opinion, which determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 8-27.)

         Plaintiff submitted a request for review of the hearing decision/order. (R. at 198-99.) However, on April 16, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 1-5.) Thus, ALJ Dodson's decision became the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff timely commenced the instant action on June 15, 2018.

         B. Plaintiff's Medical History

         The administrative record contains approximately 436 pages of medical records, which were available to the ALJ at the time of his January 4, 2018 decision. (R. at 246-682 [Exhibits B1F-B6F].) 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 September 21, 2011, the amended alleged onset date. (R. at 13.) At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, mild chronic bilateral L5 and S1 radiculopathy, mild chronic bilateral C7 polyradiculopathy, cervicalgia, history of endometriosis, history of uterine fibroids, migraine headaches, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder. (Id. at 13-14.) 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 14-15.) 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 … with the following limitations: the claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, balance, and climb ramps and stairs. [i.e., postural limitations] The claimant is limited to simple, unskilled work involving only routine, repetitive tasks, and with only occasional changes in work setting. The claimant cannot be subject to production like standards. [i.e., mental limitations] The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards. The claimant requires an environment with office-type lighting. [i.e., environmental limitations]

(Id. at 15-22.) At Step 4, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has no past relevant work. (Id. at 22.) 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 office cleaner, gate attendant, and inspector. (Id. at 22-23.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since September 21, 2011. (Id. at 23.)

         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 regulations and where that error prejudices a claimant on the merits or deprives the claimant of a substantial right.'” Rabbers, 582 F.3d at 651 (quoting Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007)).

         E. Analysis

         Plaintiff alleges three claims of error: (1) the ALJ erred in evaluating whether Plaintiff met or equaled Listing 1.04A; (2) the ALJ's RFC is not supported by substantial evidence; and, (3) the ALJ's subjective symptom analysis is flawed. (DE 19 at 2, 12-24.) The Commissioner contends that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision and that: (1) he did not commit any Step 3 error; (2) his RFC is supported ...

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