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Chappell v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

August 19, 2019

THERESA MARIE CHAPPELL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

         Sean F. Cox District Judge

         REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION TO DEEM WITHDRAWN PLAINTIFF'S INITIAL MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DE 11), GRANT PLAINTIFF'S SUBSEQUENT MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DE 15), DENY DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DE 18), AND REMAND THIS MATTER TO THE COMMISSIONER FOR FURTHER ACTION

          ANTHONY P. PATTI, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. RECOMMENDATION: For the reasons that follow, it is RECOMMENDED that the Court GRANT Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (DE 15), DENY Defendant's motion for summary judgment (DE 18), and REMAND this matter to the Commissioner for further action.[1]

         II. REPORT

         Plaintiff, Theresa Marie Chappell, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(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 15), the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment (DE 18), Plaintiff's reply (DE 19), and the administrative record (DE 7).

         A. Background and Administrative History

         Plaintiff applied for SSI on June 20, 2014. (R. at 349-354.) Plaintiff alleges her disability began on February 10, 2014, at the age of 48, at which point the Social Security Administration (SSA) considers her a “[y]ounger person.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c), 416.963(c). (R. at 349.) In her disability report, she lists several conditions (anxiety, high blood pressure, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and back injury due to an accident at work) as limiting her ability to work. (R. at 395.) Her application was denied on September 24, 2014. (R. at 186-202, 240-243.)

         1. Initial hearing and decision

         In October 2014, Plaintiff requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. at 246-248.) Plaintiff turned 50 years old on December 8, 2015, at which point the Social Security Administration considers her a “[p]erson closely approaching advanced age.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(d), 416.963(d). (R. at 349, DE 15 at 31.)

         On January 22, 2016, ALJ Andrew G. Sloss held a hearing, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE), Michelle Robb, testified. (R. at 155-185.) On the same date, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date (AOD) to June 19, 2014, which happens to be the same day as a neurology progress note by neurologist Mouaz Sbei, M.D. (R. at 368, 1519-1656.) On February 2, 2016, ALJ Sloss issued an opinion, which determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 203-224.)

         Plaintiff submitted a request for review of the hearing decision/order. (R. at 294-296.) On February 6, 2017, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ for resolution of issues concerning: (a) “decisional language explaining which findings from the prior decision remain binding and which do not[;]” (b) further consideration of Plaintiff's migraines at Step 2 of the sequential evaluation; (c) further assessment of the opinion evidence (because the state agency's physical RFC assessment was performed by a single-decision maker (SDM)); and, (d) further specification of which of Dr. Kaul's limitations are included in Plaintiff's RFC, given that the ALJ accorded “partial weight” to Dr. Kaul's opinions. (R. at 225-230.)

         2. Subsequent hearing and decision

         On July 13, 2017, ALJ Sloss held a hearing, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE), Judith Findora, testified. (R. at 137-154.) On August 1, 2017, ALJ Sloss issued an opinion, which determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 11-34.)

         Plaintiff submitted a request for review of the hearing decision/order. (R. at 346-348.) However, on April 25, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 1-6.) Thus, ALJ Sloss's decision became the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff timely commenced the instant action on May 3, 2018.

         B. Plaintiff's Medical History

         The administrative record contains approximately 1, 614 pages of medical records, which were available to the ALJ at the time of his August 1, 2017 decision. (R. at 32-34, 473-2, 086 [Exhibits 1F-31F].) 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 June 19, 2014, which he described as “the application date” but which is more accurately the amended AOD. (R. at 16, 368.) At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease (DDD), and migraine headaches. (Id. at 16-18.) 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 18-19.) Between Steps 3 and 4 of the sequential process, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] and determined that Plaintiff had the RFC:

. . . to perform light work [i.e., exertional limitations]. . . except that the claimant can occasionally climb ramps or stairs and can frequently balance [i.e., postural limitations]. The claimant must also avoid even moderate exposure to hazards [i.e., environmental limitations].

(Id. at 19-26.) At Step 4, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 26.) 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 cleaner, cashier, and packer. (Id. at 27.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since June 19, 2014. (Id. at 27-28.)

         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. ...


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