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Hale v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division, Dayton

August 6, 2019

SUSAN M. HALE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

         DECISION AND ENTRY: (1) REVERSING THE ALJ'S NON-DISABILITY FINDING AS UNSUPPORTED BY SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE; (2) REMANDING THIS CASE UNDER THE FOURTH SENTENCE OF 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) FOR AN IMMEDIATE AWARD OF BENEFITS FOR THE CLOSED PERIOD OF OCTOBER 17, 2006 THROUGH JUNE 2, 2015; AND (3) TERMINATING THIS CASE ON THE COURT'S DOCKET

          Michael J. Newman United States Magistrate Judge.

         This is a Social Security disability benefits appeal for which the parties have consented to entry of final judgment. At issue is whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in finding Plaintiff not “disabled” during the closed period at issue and therefore unentitled to Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and/or Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).[1] This case is before the Court on Plaintiff's Statement of Errors (doc. 11), the Commissioner's memorandum in opposition (doc. 15), Plaintiff's reply (doc. 16), the administrative record (doc. 7), [2] and the record as a whole.

         I.

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed for DIB and SSI alleging a disability onset date of October 17, 2006. PageID 1234. Plaintiff claims disability as a result of a number of alleged impairments including, inter alia, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, diabetes mellitus with nephropathy and neuropathy, morbid obesity, depressive disorder, a personality disorder, and borderline intellectual functioning. PageID 1829.

         After an initial denial of her application, Plaintiff received a hearing before ALJ Maria Hodges on October 12, 2011. PageID 70-110. ALJ Hodges issued a written decision on October 26, 2011 finding Plaintiff not disabled. PageID 43-59. Plaintiff appealed, and on September 26, 2014, this Court vacated the non-disability finding and remanded her claim for further proceedings. Hale v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 3:13-cv-2014, 2014 WL 7176476 (S.D. Ohio Sept. 26, 2014).

         On remand, Plaintiff received a second hearing on March 23, 2015 before ALJ Elizabeth Motta. PageID 1902-15. ALJ Motta issued a written decision on July 31, 2015 finding Plaintiff not disabled. PageID 1923-48. Plaintiff appealed for a second time, and this Court again found reversible error in the ALJ's non-disability finding. Hale v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 307 F.Supp.3d 785 (S.D. Ohio 2017). Specifically, this Court remanded Plaintiff's claim to the Commissioner for a reassessment of the opinions written by Plaintiff's treating physicians. Id. at 792-97.

         Plaintiff received a third hearing, before ALJ Deborah F. Sanders, on January 19, 2018. PageID 1869-99. ALJ Sanders issued a written opinion on May 1, 2018, finding that Plaintiff became disabled on June 3, 2015. PageID 1824-54. Prior to that date, however, ALJ Sanders found at Step Five that, based on Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of light work, [3] “there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] could have performed[.]” PageID 1829-51.

         ALJ Sanders' non-disability decision for the closed period of October 17, 2006 through June 2, 2015 became the final administrative decision of the Commissioner after remand when Plaintiff did not file any exceptions, and the Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claim. PageID 4246; 20 C.F.R. § 404.984(d). Plaintiff then filed this timely appeal. Cook v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 480 F.3d 432, 435 (6th Cir. 2007). This May 1, 2018 opinion by ALJ Sanders (hereinafter “ALJ”) is now before the Court for review.

         B. Evidence of Record

         The evidence of record is adequately summarized in the ALJ's decision (PageID 1824-54), Plaintiff's Statement of Errors (doc. 11), the Commissioner's memorandum in opposition (doc. 15), and Plaintiff's reply (doc. 16). The undersigned incorporates all of the foregoing and sets forth the facts relevant to this appeal herein.

         II.

         A. Standard of Review

         The Court's inquiry on a Social Security appeal is to determine (1) whether the ALJ's non-disability finding is supported by substantial evidence, and (2) whether the ALJ employed the correct legal criteria. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 745-46 (6th Cir. 2007). In performing this review, the Court must consider the record as a whole. Hephner v. Mathews, 574 F.2d 359, 362 (6th Cir. 1978).

         Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). When substantial evidence supports the ALJ's denial of benefits, that finding must be affirmed, even if substantial evidence also exists in the record upon which the ALJ could have found Plaintiff disabled. Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 772 (6th Cir. 2001). Thus, the ALJ has a “‘zone of choice' within which he [or she] can act without the fear of court interference.” Id. at 773.

         The second judicial inquiry __ reviewing the correctness of the ALJ's legal analysis __ may result in reversal even if the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009). “[A] decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the [Social Security Administration] fails to follow its own regulations and where that error prejudices a claimant on the merits or deprives the claimant of a substantial right.” Bowen, 478 F.3d at 746.

         B. “Disabilit ...


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