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Steven M. Harris v. Commissioner of Social Security

November 14, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge William H. Baughman, Jr.



This is an action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the applications of the plaintiff, Steven M. Harris, for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income.*fn1 The parties have consented to magistrate judge's jurisdiction.*fn2

The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), whose decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, found that Harris had severe impairments consisting of degenerative disc disease of the spine; asthma; bipolar disorder, not otherwise specified, and a personality disorder.*fn3 The ALJ made the following finding regarding Harris's residual functional capacity (RFC):

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find the claimant has the residual functional capacity to lift, carry, push, pull, and foot pedal 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally. He can walk for two blocks and needs to rest for 15 minutes. Sitting and stand can be performed at will. He can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance, and stoop. He needs to avoid smoke and fumes. He can perform simple, repetitive tasks in a low stress environment meaning no high production quotas or piece work. He can have superficial interactions (with a specified purpose) with the public as defined in 20 CFR 404.1576(b) and 416.967(b).*fn4 Based on that residual functional capacity, the ALJ found Harris incapable of performing any of his past relevant work as an unskilled press operator, low level semi-skilled work activity as a clerk in a convenient store, and security guard.*fn5

Applying the medical-vocational grids in Appendix 2 of the regulations,*fn6 and further relying upon an answer to a hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert at the hearing setting forth the residual functional capacity finding quoted above, the ALJ determined that a significant number of jobs existed locally and nationally that Harris could perform.*fn7 The ALJ, therefore, found Harris not under a disability.*fn8

In his brief on the merits, Harris asks for reversal of the Commissioner's decision on the ground that it does not have the support of substantial evidence in the administrative record.*fn9 Specifically, Harris argues that: (1) the RFC findings are not supported by substantial evidence, and are inconsistent with the medical record;*fn10 (2) the ALJ did not sufficiently articulate his reasons for finding Harris not credible;*fn11 and (3) there was not substantial evidence to support the finding that there were other jobs in significant number that Harris could perform.*fn12

After reviewing the record, the briefs of the parties, and the arguments advanced at oral argument, the Court concludes, for the reasons stated below, that the ALJ's ultimate finding of no disability is not supported by substantial evidence and, therefore, the matter must be remanded.


A. Standards of review

1. Substantial evidence

The Sixth Circuit in Buxton v. Halter reemphasized the standard of review applicable to decisions of the ALJs in disability cases:

Congress has provided for federal court review of Social Security administrative decisions. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). However, the scope of review is limited under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g): "The findings of the Secretary as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." In other words, on review of the Commissioner's decision that claimant is not totally disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the only issue reviewable by this court is whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Substantial evidence is " 'more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.' "

The findings of the Commissioner are not subject to reversal merely because there exists in the record substantial evidence to support a different conclusion. This is so because there is a "zone of choice" within which the Commissioner can act, without the fear of court interference.*fn13

Viewed in the context of a jury trial, all that is necessary to affirm is that reasonable minds could reach different conclusions on the evidence. If such is the case, the Commissioner survives "a directed verdict" and wins.*fn14 The court may not disturb the Commissioner's ...

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