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Bryant v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

September 25, 2013


OPINION & ORDER [Resolving Doc. No. 1, 18, 19]

JAMES S. GWIN, District Judge.

Magistrate Judge George J. Limbert recommends this Court affirm the Social Security Commissioner's denial of supplemental security income to Plaintiff Brandon N. Bryant.[1] Because substantial evidence supported the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ's) conclusions and the ALJ did not abuse her discretion, the Court ADOPTS the recommendations of the Magistrate Judge and AFFIRMS the Commissioner's denial of benefits.

I. Factual and Procedural Background[2]

On April 8, 2008, Plaintiff Brandon Bryant filed an application for supplemental security income.[3] After his application was denied, Bryant requested a hearing.[4] On November 30, 2010, Bryant appeared at a hearing with counsel before Administrative Law Judge Penny Loucas; a neutral vocational expert also attended and testified.[5]

Plaintiff testified that he injured his hand when he accidentally put it through a window while working for his father.[6] As a result, his hand stiffened and closed.[7] Bryant had surgery on his hand and occasionally attended physical therapy.[8] Plaintiff also testified about his criminal history and that he had obsessive traits.[9]

During the hearing, the ALJ and Bryant's counsel also questioned the vocational expert. The ALJ asked what jobs a person limited to unskilled work and with only occasional use of his dominant hand could perform.[10] The vocational expert answered that such a person could serve as a flagger, an usher, or a parking lot attendant.[11] The vocational expert said that all those jobs required only a one- or two-step reasoning level.[12] The Dictionary of Occupational Titles defines each position as requiring a GED reasoning level of 2.[13] The vocational expert also said that those jobs could be performed by a person who could only use his dominant hand to guide objects.[14]

Several consultants also gave opinions. Four consultants offered opinions on Bryant's use of his hand: two consultants said that he had occasional use of his hand, and two said he had no use at all.[15] The ALJ also had records or opinions from eight consultants concerning Bryant's mental abilities.[16] Medical records also stated that Plaintiff had actually injured his hand by breaking a glass window to enter his house when he was locked out.[17]

On December 22, 2010, the ALJ denied Bryant's applications.[18] Although the ALJ gave significant weight to the opinions of two state medical examiners who found Bryant could only perform one- or two-step routines, the ALJ did not include that limitation in her finding of Bryant's residual functional capacity.[19] The ALJ found that Plaintiff had occasional use of his right hand.[20] The ALJ found his other symptoms to be not credible to the extent that the symptoms were not consistent with that residual functional capacity.[21] The ALJ also found that because Bryant could act as a flagger, usher, or parking lot attendant, he was not disabled and entitled to supplemental security income.[22]

Bryant appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration, [23] which denied his request for review on June 19, 2012.[24] On August 7, 2012, Bryant sought review in this Court.[25] On September 3, 2013, Magistrate Judge Limbert issued a Report and Recommendation that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision.[26] Bryant timely filed objections to the Report and Recommendation, which the Court now reviews.[27]

II. Legal Standard

To establish disability under the Social Security Act, a claimant must show that she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity because of a "medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months."[28] Agency regulations establish a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled.[29] The claimant's impairment must prevent her from doing her previous work, as well as any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy.[30]

The Federal Magistrates Act requires a district court to conduct a de novo review of the claimant's objections to a report and recommendation.[31] A final decision of the Social Security Commissioner made by an ALJ is, however, not reviewed de novo. A district court only determines whether the ALJ's decision is "supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards."[32]

Substantial evidence is evidence that a "reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."[33] The substantial evidence standard requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance of the evidence.[34] In deciding whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, a court should not try to resolve conflicts in evidence or decide questions of credibility.[35] The district court may look into any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the ALJ.[36] When substantial evidence ...

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