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Willis v. Colvin

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

August 28, 2013



DAVID L. BUNNING, District Judge.

Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g) to obtain judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Court, having reviewed the record and for the reasons set forth herein, will remand the Commissioner's decision for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.


Plaintiff Brian Willis filed an application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) on August 14, 2008 (Tr. 41). Plaintiff alleges he became unable to work on November 28, 2007. (Tr. 147-49, 183). His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 78-81, 83-85). At Plaintiff's request, an administrative hearing was conducted on August 18, 2010, by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Cam Oetter. (Tr. 41, 52-73). On September 17, 2010, the ALJ ruled that Plaintiff was not disabled and therefore not entitled to DIB. (Tr. 38-51). This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on May 15, 2012. (Tr. 1-5).

On July 12, 2012, Plaintiff filed the instant action. This matter has culminated in cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for adjudication. (Docs. # 9 & 14).


A. Overview of the Process

Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is restricted to determining whether it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards. See Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Courts are not to conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or make credibility determinations. See Cutlip, 25 F.3d at 286. Rather, we are to affirm the Commissioner's decision, provided it is supported by substantial evidence, even if we might have decided the case differently. See Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999). However, even if supported by substantial evidence, "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) (citing Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 546-47 (6th Cir. 2004)).

The ALJ, in determining disability, conducts a five-step analysis. Step 1 considers whether the claimant is still performing substantial gainful activity; Step 2, whether any of the claimant's impairments are "severe"; Step 3, whether the impairments meet or equal a listing in the Listing of Impairments; Step 4, whether the claimant can still perform her past relevant work; and Step 5, whether significant numbers of other jobs exist in the national economy which the claimant can perform. As to the last step, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the Commissioner. See Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003); Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).

B. The ALJ's Determination

At Step 1, the ALJ found that there was no evidence that Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 28, 2007, the alleged onset of his disability. (Tr. 43). At Step 2, the ALJ found Plaintiff's obesity, degenerative disc disease, hypertension, and idiopathic peripheral neuropathy were severe impairments within the meaning of the regulations. ( Id. ).

At Step 3, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed in, or medically equal to an impairment listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 44). Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments were not severe enough to meet Listings 1.00 (musculoskeletal system), 4.00 (cardiovascular system), 9.00 (neurological system), or 11.00 (neurological system). ( Id. ).

At Step 4, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work with the following restrictions: he must be permitted to alternate between sit/stand postures at twenty to thirty minute intervals, if desired; he can perform occasional climbing of ramps/stairs, balancing, stooping, crouching and crawling and operating foot controls; he can perform occasional pushing/pulling with the extremities; he should not climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds; and he should avoid concentrated exposure to vibration and all exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights. ( Id. ). Based upon this RFC, the ALJ concluded at Step 4 that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. 49).

Accordingly, the ALJ proceeded to the final step of the sequential evaluation. At Step 5, the ALJ found that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including work as a cashier or a mail clerk. (Tr. ...

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