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Shanafelt v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan

January 14, 2020




         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 Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act. The parties have agreed to proceed in this Court for all further proceedings, including an order of final judgment. 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.

         The Commissioner has found that Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Plaintiff challenges one aspect of that decision: the step three determination that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal Listing 4.02, Chronic Heart Failure. For the reasons stated below, the Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.


         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 Servs., 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 a decision and whether there exists in the record substantial evidence supporting that decision. See Brainard v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 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 those findings are conclusive provided substantial evidence supports them. 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 Health and Human Servs., 964 F.2d 524, 528 (6th Cir. 1992). 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 Servs., 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). 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.


         Plaintiff filed his application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) on February 11, 2015, alleging disability as of April 1, 2010, because of heart failure, peripheral artery disease, neuropathy, and depression. His date last insured for DIB was September 30, 2015. The state agency denied his application on June 23, 2015. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) William Spalo held a hearing on May 12, 2017. ALJ Spalo denied the claim on June 7, 2017. The Appeals Council denied review on March 21, 2018. Plaintiff initiated this civil action for judicial review on May 23, 2018.


         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).[1] 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 Plaintiff's shoulders, and 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, 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. Commissioner of Social Security, 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997).

         The ALJ followed the Commissioner's five-step sequential evaluation process. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on September 30, 2015, and that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from the alleged onset date of April 1, 2010 through September 30, 2015. (PageID.51-65.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, ischemic heart disease, diabetes mellitus, peripheral neuropathy, peripheral artery disease, obesity, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, limited vision in the right eye, depression, and anxiety. (PageID.53.) Those medically determinable impairments significantly limit the ability to perform basic work activities.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that, through the last insured date, Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526. (PageID.54.) This finding was based on the ALJ's analysis that the medical evidence did not document listing-level severity, and no acceptable medical source had mentioned findings equivalent in severity to the criteria of any listed impairment, individually or in combination. (PageID.54-55.) At step three, the claimant bears the burden to establish that his impairments meet a listed impairment. See Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 548 (6th Cir. 2004). The Listing of Impairments, located at Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the regulations, describes impairments the Social Security Administration considers to be “severe enough to prevent an individual from doing any gainful activity, regardless of his or her age, education, or work experience.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a). “For a claimant to show that his impairment matches a listing, it must meet all of the specified medical criteria. An impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990) (emphasis in original). Moreover, all of the criteria must be met concurrently for a period of twelve continuous months. See McKeel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 14-cv-12815, 2015 WL 3932546, *8 (E.D. Mich. June 26, 2015) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(c)(3), (4); 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 1.00D (“[b]ecause abnormal physical findings may be intermittent, their presence over a period of time must be established by a record of ongoing management and evaluation”)).

         With respect to Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined that through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(a). (PageID.55-56.) Although the ALJ noted that Plaintiff suffers from medically determinable impairments that could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms Plaintiff claims he suffers from, he also found that “the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record….” (PageID.57.) The ALJ found that the medical evidence did not support any greater limitation to the claimant's work-related abilities than that set out in the ALJ's assessment of residual functional capacity. The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's cardiac impairments, diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, back impairment, obesity and associated symptoms were accommodated by limiting him to work at the sedentary exertional level with certain additional limitations. (PageID.60.) The medical evidence indicated that the claimant was capable of performing work within those limitations. (PageID.60.) Likewise, the ALJ found, although the medical evidence indicated that Plaintiff had depressive disorder and adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depression, it did not indicate that the impairments were so severe as to prevent him from performing basic work activities. (PageID.61.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work (PageID.63), 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. O'Banner 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 to determine whether there exist a significant number of jobs which a particular claimant can perform, his limitations notwithstanding. Here, the ALJ questioned a vocational expert. (PageID.64.)

         The vocational expert reported that there existed approximately 275, 000 jobs nationally that an individual with Plaintiff's residual functional capacity could perform, his limitations notwithstanding. This represents a significant number of jobs. See, e.g., Taskila v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 819 F.3d 902, 905 (6th Cir. 2016) (“[s]ix thousand jobs in the United States fits comfortably within what this court and others have deemed ‘significant'”). Accordingly, at step five, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits.

         Plaintiff's Appeal

         On appeal to this Court, Plaintiff Shanafelt argues that the ALJ erred at step three in determining that he did not have an impairment that meets or medically equals Listing 4.02 (Chronic Heart Failure), arguing that substantial evidence does not support the Commissioner's decision. (PageID.1724.) He also argues that the ALJ provided insufficient analysis to support this finding. (PageID.1727-28.) If his medical evidence indicated that he met or equaled that listed impairment, then Plaintiff would be found disabled without further consideration of age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

         Plaintiff Shanafelt argues that his condition meets or medically equals Listing 4.02 because there is documented evidence that his left ventricle ejection fraction (LVEF) is at or below 30%, there is evidence of serious limitations in his ability to initiate, sustain, or complete activities of daily living, and an exercise test would present a significant risk. (PageID.1728-29.)

         The Sixth Circuit has held that an ALJ commits reversible error by failing to analyze the claimant's physical condition in relation to the Listed Impairment. Reynolds v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,424 Fed.Appx. 411, 415-16 (6th Cir. 2011). In Reynolds, the court summarized the manner in which an ALJ should analyze a physical condition under the listed impairments: “In short, the ALJ needed to actually evaluate the evidence, compare it to Section 1.00 of the Listing, and give an explained conclusion, in order to facilitate meaningful judicial review. Without it, it is impossible to say that the ALJ's decision at Step Three was supported by substantial evidence.” Id. at 416 (citing Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112, 120 (3d ...

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