United States District Court, W.D. Michigan
CHRISTOPHER R. SHANAFELT, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
J. BERENS, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
OF THE ALJ'S DECISION
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). 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.
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).
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.
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
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
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.)
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
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. §
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.
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 ...