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Williams v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

May 28, 2013



BENITA Y. PEARSON, District Judge.

On March 19, 2013, Magistrate Judge Kathleen B. Burke issued a Report ("R&R") recommending that the decision of the Commissioner be reversed and remanded for proceedings consistent with the R&R. ECF No. 19. The Commissioner and Plaintiff both filed objections (ECF Nos. 20; 21) and responses in opposition to the objections lodged by the other (ECF Nos. 22; 23). For the reasons that follow, the Court overrules both parties' objections and adopts the R&R.

I. Background[1]

Plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on or about September 24, 2007, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2006 based on asthma, affective disorders, bipolar manic depressive, and abnormal vaginal bleeding. ECF No. 19 at 1-2. After initial denials by the state agency and denials upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing, and an administrative hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Dennis LeBlanc ("ALJ") on April 29, 2011. ECF No. 19 at 2. On June 8, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff had not been under a disability since January 1, 2006, through the date of the ALJ's decision. ECF No. 19 at 2. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council- the Appeals Council denied her request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. ECF No. 19 at 2.

In determining that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, the ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. ECF Nos. 19 at 11-12; 15 at 15. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date and that she had the following severe impairments: asthma, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, vein thrombosis, obesity and major depressive disorder. ECF Nos. 19 at 12; 15 at 16; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (ii). Because Plaintiff's impairments were not listed impairments, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and her age, education, and work experience. ECF Nos. 19 at 12; 15 at 17-21; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (iv)(v). The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work, and that she "can understand, remember, and carryout non-detailed two to three step instructions in a routine work environment with few daily changes." ECF No. 15 at 18.

To determine whether there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, the ALJ asked a Vocational Expert ("VE") to assume a hypothetical:

an individual age 29 with a limited education. I'd like you to further assume that this hypothetical individual I'm describing would be able to lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently; stand and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour day; sit for about six hours of an eight-hour day; would be occasionally able to climb, but no ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; would be occasionally able to stoop; would need to avoid work environments of extreme heat; would need to avoid work environments with smoke, fumes, dust, gases; would be able to understand, remember, and carry out non-detailed two- to three-step instructions; where interaction in a routine work environment with few daily changes, where interaction with co-workers would be superficial in nature, and interaction with the general public would be no more than occasional.

ECF Nos. 15 at 70-71; 19 at 9. The ALJ then asked the VE whether such a hypothetical individual would be able to perform any unskilled occupations existing in the national, regional or local economy, to which the VE answered in the affirmative, citing mail clerk (not in the post office) and bench assembler. ECF Nos. 19 at 10; 15 at 71-72.

Plaintiff filed a Complaint in the instant Court and argued that 1) although the ALJ found that Plaintiff had moderate limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace, the ALJ's step five RFC determination and hypothetical question to the VE did not account for those limitations; and 2) the ALJ failed to adequately evaluate evidence of Plaintiff's hospitalizations in 2008 and 2009 which, Plaintiff alleges, proves that she would be unable to perform sustained work and is therefore disabled. ECF Nos. 19 at 13; 16 at 9, 11; 18 at 6, 7. The magistrate judge found that the ALJ's step five determination was not supported by substantial evidence and recommended remand on that issue. ECF No. 19 at 14-19. The magistrate judge also determined that the ALJ did not err in his consideration of Plaintiff's treatment history, including her hospitalizations. ECF No. 19 at 21.

Both parties filed objections to the R&R - Plaintiff asserts that the magistrate judge's hospitalization finding is erroneous, and the Commissioner contends that the RFC and the VE hypothetical reasonably accounted for Plaintiff's mental impairments. ECF Nos. 20; 21.

II. Legal Standard

When an objection has been made to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the district court standard of review is de novo. Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 72(b)(3). A district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to. Id. The district judge may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions. Id.

When reviewing the Commissioner's conclusions regarding disability benefits, a court "must affirm the Commissioner's conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standards or made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record." Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). Judicial review is limited to "whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence." Blakely v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir.2009). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Besaw v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 966 F.2d 1028, 1030 (6th Cir. 1992). The Commissioner's findings "as to any fact if supported by substantial evidence shall be conclusive." McClanahan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Even if substantial evidence supports a claimant's position, the court cannot overturn the decision "so long as substantial evidence also supports the conclusion ...

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