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Shaulis v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

August 12, 2019

LISA JEAN SHAULIS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          Edmund A. Sargus, Jr. Chief Judge.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          CHELSEY M. VASCURA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, Lisa Jean Shaulis (“Plaintiff”), brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for social security disability insurance benefits. This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Statement of Errors (ECF No. 9), the Commissioner's Memorandum in Opposition (ECF No. 12), Plaintiff's Reply Memorandum (ECF No. 13), and the administrative record (ECF No. 8). For the reasons that follow, it is RECOMMENDED that Plaintiff's Statement of Errors be OVERRULED and that the Commissioner's decision be AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed her application for Title II Social Security Benefits on June 23, 2014, alleging that she had been disabled since February 8, 2013. (R. 530, 537.) On May 4, 2017, following administrative denials of Plaintiff's application initially and on reconsideration, a video hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Peter J. Boylan (the “ALJ”). (Id. at 344-67.) Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. Vocational expert Karen Schneider (the “VE”) also appeared and testified at the hearing. On May 19, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id. at 14-25.) On August 24, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review and adopted the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. (R. 4-8.) Plaintiff then timely commenced the instant action. (ECF No. 1, 3.)

         II. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         On May 19, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. 14-25.) At step one of the sequential evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantially gainful activity since February 1, 2014, Plaintiff's alleged disability onset date.[2] (Id. at 17.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of major joint dysfunction, multiple arthropathies, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, migraines, affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and personality disorder. (Id.) He further found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments described in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 17-18.) Specifically, the ALJ considered and rejected Listings 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint), 1.04 (disorders of the spine), 3.02 (chronic respiratory disorders), 3.03 (asthma), 12.04 (depressive disorders), 12.06 (anxiety disorders), and 12.08 (personality disorders). (Id.) The ALJ did not, despite Plaintiff's counsel's express request at the hearing, mention Listing 1.06 (fracture of the femur, tibia, pelvis, or one or more of the tarsal bones) in his decision.

         At step four of the sequential process, the ALJ set forth Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[3] as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except the claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally climb ramps or stairs; occasionally stoop, crouch, crawl, or kneel; and frequently balance. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, humidity, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation. The claimant requires the use of a cane in one hand to walk, but has the ability to use the free hand for work. The claimant is limited to occasional overhead reaching with the left upper extremity being non-dominant. The claimant is limited to simple, routine tasks, but is not able to perform at a production rate pace. The claimant is limited to simple, work related decisions. The claimant is limited to frequent interaction with supervisors, as well as occasional interactions with coworkers and the public. The claimant is limited to tolerating occasional changes in a routine work setting.

(Id. at 18-19.) The ALJ then relied on the hearing testimony of the VE to conclude that Plaintiff is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. He therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act during the relevant period. (R. 24.)

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When reviewing a case under the Social Security Act, the Court “must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it ‘is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.'” Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”). Under this standard, “substantial evidence is defined as ‘more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241 (quoting Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Hum. Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994)).

         Although the substantial evidence standard is deferential, it is not trivial. The Court must “‘take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from [the] weight'” of the Commissioner's decision. TNS, Inc. v. NLRB, 296 F.3d 384, 395 (6th Cir. 2002) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 487 (1951)).

         Nevertheless, “if substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, this Court defers to that finding ‘even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion.'” Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 406 (quoting Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)). Finally, even if the ALJ's decision meets the substantial evidence standard, “a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the SSA 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 v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff raises two issues in his Statement of Errors (ECF No. 9): (1) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate whether Plaintiff's non-union fracture of the navicular bone meets or medically equals Listing 1.06; and (2) the ALJ failed to explain and resolve a conflict between the vocational expert's testimony and ...


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