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Cook v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 30, 2019

REBECCA COOK, Plaintiff,




         Before the Court are objections (Dkt. 17) filed by the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security to a June 24, 2019 Report and Recommendation (“R & R”) issued by Magistrate Judge R. Steven Whalen (Dkt. 16). In the R & R, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the Court grant in part Plaintiff Rebecca Cook’s motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 10), deny the Defendant Commissioner’s motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 15), and remand this matter for further administrative proceedings so that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) may revisit and clarify his findings under Step Three of the five-step framework for determining a claimant’s entitlement to Social Security benefits. For the reasons discussed below, the Court SUSTAINS Defendant’s objections and declines to adopt the Magistrate Judge’s recommendations in the R & R. Instead, the Court determines that Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment should be DENIED, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment should be GRANTED, and the challenged decision of the Defendant Commissioner should be AFFIRMED.


         Neither party has objected to the Magistrate Judge’s survey of the procedural history and background facts of this case regarding Plaintiff’s application for supplemental security income benefits and the record in support of this application. Nor do they take issue with the Magistrate Judge’s summary of the administrative proceedings and findings of the Administrative Law Judge on Plaintiff’s claim for benefits. Accordingly, the Court adopts these unchallenged portions of the R & R.


         A district court must conduct a de novo review of any portion of a magistrate judge’s R & R to which a party objects. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The district court “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The requirement of de novo review “is a statutory recognition that Article III of the United States Constitution mandates that the judicial power of the United States be vested in judges with life tenure.” United States v. Shami, 754 F.2d 670, 672 (6th Cir. 1985). Accordingly, Congress enacted 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) to “insure[ ] that the district judge would be the final arbiter” of matters referred to a magistrate judge. Flournoy v. Marshall, 842 F.2d 875, 878 (6th Cir. 1988).

         The Court must affirm the decision of the Defendant Commissioner so long as “it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.” Rogers v. Commissioner of Social Security, 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). “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 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). If the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, “it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently, and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion.” Cutlip v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted).

         When determining whether the Defendant Commissioner’s factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, the Court confines its examination to the administrative record considered as a whole. Wyatt v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992). There is no requirement, however, that either the Commissioner or this Court must discuss every piece of evidence in the record. Kornecky v. Commissioner of Social Security, No. 04-2171, 167 Fed.App’x 496, 508 (6th Cir. Feb. 9, 2006). Further, in reviewing the Defendant Commissioner’s resolution of Plaintiff’s claim for benefits, this 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).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         In determining that this matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings, the Magistrate Judge points to the ALJ’s failure to consider, as part of his Step Three analysis, whether Plaintiff’s severe physical impairments either (i) met the criteria of any listed impairment described in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “Listing of Impairments”), or (ii) medically equaled one of these listed impairments. Although the ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s “mental impairments, considered singly and in combination, d[id] not meet or medically equal the criteria of [L]isting 12.04, ” he conducted no such analysis comparing Plaintiff’s physical impairments to the criteria of any specific listing, but instead found more generally that these physical impairments did not meet the criteria of “any” impairment described in the Listing of Impairments. (Admin. Record at 15.) The Magistrate Judge recommends that this matter be remanded so that the ALJ may determine (i) whether Plaintiff’s fibromyalgia, considered in isolation or in combination with her other impairments, medically equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments, such as Listing 14.09D for inflammatory arthritis, (see R & R at 17-18), and (ii) whether Plaintiff’s systemic lupus erythematosus meets or medically equals the criteria for Listing 14.02, (see Id . at 18-19).

         The Defendant Commissioner challenges this recommended remand on two grounds. First, Defendant observes that Plaintiff’s underlying motion for summary judgment contested the ALJ’s Step Three analysis on only one specific ground, faulting the ALJ for failing to consider whether Plaintiff’s physical impairments met or medically equaled the criteria for Listing 1.04 concerning spinal disorders. (See Dkt. 10, Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment, Br. in Support at 12-14.) Yet, the Magistrate Judge’s analysis in the R & R is not confined to the sole listing (1.04) identified in Plaintiff’s motion, but instead takes issue with the ALJ’s failure to address two other listings (14.09D and 14.02) that are nowhere mentioned in Plaintiff’s underlying motion. Next, even assuming it was appropriate for the Magistrate Judge to look beyond the single, narrow challenge advanced in Plaintiff’s motion, Defendant argues that the evidence identified in the R & R is insufficient to establish that Plaintiff’s physical impairments meet or medically equal either of the two additional listings addressed by the Magistrate Judge. As discussed below, the Court agrees with the Defendant Commissioner on both points.

         The Sixth Circuit has emphasized that “[t]he relevant Social Security regulations require the ALJ to find a claimant disabled if he meets a listing” in the Listing of Impairments. Smith-Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Security, No. 13-1696, 579 Fed.App’x 426, 432 (6th Cir. Sept. 8, 2014) (citations omitted). “Yet, neither the listings nor the Sixth Circuit require the ALJ to address every listing or to discuss listings that the applicant clearly does not meet.” Smith-Johnson, 579 Fed.App’x at 432 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Rather, the ALJ must address a particular listing only if “the record raises a substantial question as to whether the claimant could qualify as disabled under [that] listing.” 579 Fed.App’x at 432 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “Absent such evidence” that “reasonably could meet or equal every requirement” of a given listing, “the ALJ does not commit reversible error by failing to evaluate [that] listing” as part of a Step Three analysis. 579 Fed.App’x at 432-33.

         In this case, the Magistrate Judge properly recognizes that an ALJ’s failure to address a specific listing can be “harmless error, ” and thus would not warrant a remand, if the record lacks evidence sufficient to meet or equal each of the criteria of the listing at issue. (See R & R at 15.) Indeed, the Magistrate Judge expressly invokes this “harmless error” principle in the R & R, noting that the ALJ failed to address the specific listing identified in Plaintiff’s underlying summary judgment motion (Listing 1.04), but nonetheless concluding that this failure “does not provide grounds for remand” because the record lacks evidence to establish at least one of the criteria of this listing. (Id. at 16-17.) As for two other listings (14.02 and 14.09D) that the ALJ likewise failed to address in his Step Three inquiry, however, the Magistrate Judge reasons that these oversights cannot be deemed harmless errors that are ...

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