Urbanczyk v. Social Security
OPINION AND ORDER OVERRULING PLAINTIFFS OBJECTIONS AND ADOPTING MAGISTRATE JUDGES REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION re 26 Report and Recommendation, 19 Motion to Remand filed by Commissioner of Social Security, 25 Motion to Remand filed by Commissi oner of Social Security, 16 Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Paul David Urbanczyk - this matter is remanded to the Defendant Commissioner under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for the limited purpose identified in the Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation. Signed by District Judge Marianne O. Battani. (KDoa)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
PAUL DAVID URBANCZYK,
Case No. 16-12139
Hon. Marianne O. Battani
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,
OPINION AND ORDER OVERRULING PLAINTIFF’S OBJECTIONS
AND ADOPTING MAGISTRATE JUDGE’S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
Before the Court are Plaintiff Paul David Urbanczyk’s objections (Dkt. 27) to
Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Stafford’s July 21, 2017 Report and Recommendation
(“R & R”) (Dkt. 26). The R & R recommends that the Court deny Plaintiff’s motion for
summary judgment (Dkt. 16), grant the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security’s
motion for remand (Dkt. 19, 25), and remand this matter to the Defendant
Commissioner under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for correction of the time
period covered by the challenged decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). For
the reasons discussed below, the Court OVERRULES Plaintiff’s objections and
ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge’s R & R in its entirety.
STATEMENT OF FACTS
Neither party objects to the Magistrate Judge’s account of the background facts
concerning Plaintiff’s claims for Social Security benefits and medical history.
Accordingly, the Court adopts these unchallenged portions of the R & R.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A district court must conduct a de novo review of any portion of a magistrate
judge’s R & R to which a party objects. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The district court “may
accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by
the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The requirement of de novo review “is a
statutory recognition that Article III of the United States Constitution mandates that the
judicial power of the United States be vested in judges with life tenure.” United States v.
Shami, 754 F.2d 670, 672 (6th Cir. 1985). Accordingly, Congress enacted 28 U.S.C. §
636(b)(1) to “insure[ ] that the district judge would be the final arbiter” of matters referred
to a magistrate judge. Flournoy v. Marshall, 842 F.2d 875, 878 (6th Cir. 1988).
The Court must affirm the decision of the Defendant Commissioner so long as “it
is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal
standards.” Rogers v. Commissioner of Social Security, 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir.
2007). “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 (internal quotation
marks and citation omitted). If the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial
evidence, “it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter
differently, and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion.”
Cutlip v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994)
When determining whether the Defendant Commissioner’s factual findings are
supported by substantial evidence, the Court confines its examination to the
administrative record considered as a whole. Wyatt v. Secretary of Health & Human
Services, 974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992) (internal quotation marks and citation
omitted). There is no requirement, however, that either the Commissioner or this Court
must discuss every piece of evidence in the record. Kornecky v. Commissioner of
Social Security, No. 04-2171, 167 F. App’x 496, 508 (6th Cir. Feb. 9, 2006). Further,
this Court does not “try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence, or decide
questions of credibility.” Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007).
Plaintiff objects to the R & R on two grounds. First, he takes issue with the
Magistrate Judge's determination that the ALJ identified sufficient reasons, backed by
substantial evidence, for discounting the opinions of Plaintiff's treating and examining
physicians regarding Plaintiff's mental and physical impairments and resulting
limitations. Next, he contends that the Magistrate Judge's harmless error analysis
should trigger a finding of disability under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R.
pt. 404, subpt. P, app'x 2. The Court addresses each of these objections in turn.
As his first challenge to the R & R, Plaintiff reiterates the principal argument
advanced in his underlying motion for summary judgment: namely, that the ALJ
impermissibly "played doctor" by discounting the opinions of Plaintiff's treating and
examining physicians, and instead substituting her own views as to the limitations
resulting from Plaintiff's mental and physical impairments. Turning first to the evidence
of his mental impairments, Plaintiff notes that the ALJ gave no weight to the opinions of
either of the two medical professionals who evaluated Plaintiff's mental health condition,
and he surmises that the ALJ must have improperly relied on her own, non-expert
review of the medical record in determining that Plaintiff's mental impairments were not
The Magistrate Judge ably identified the flawed premise underlying this
argument. As observed in the R & R, "it is [Plaintiff's] burden to demonstrate that he
suffers from severe mental impairments." (Dkt. 26, R & R at 9.) Yet, it is indisputably
the responsibility of the ALJ to evaluate the medical and non-medical evidence in order
to identify Plaintiff's limitations and determine his residual functional capacity ("RFC"),
and "[a]n ALJ does not improperly assume the role of a medical expert" by performing
these tasks. Coldiron v. Commissioner of Social Security, No. 09-4071, 391 F. App'x
435, 439 (6th Cir. Aug. 12, 2010). As explained by the Magistrate Judge, once the ALJ
considered the opinions of the two mental health professionals who evaluated Plaintiff
and determined that these opinions were entitled to no weight, it readily followed — and
the ALJ properly concluded — that Plaintiff had not met his burden of establishing that
he suffers from a severe mental impairment that would "preclude him from performing
basic work activities." (Dkt. 26, R & R at 9, 12.)1 In the absence of evidence supporting
a claimant's allegation of a severe impairment with attendant limitations, an ALJ does
Moreover, the Magistrate Judge found that substantial evidence supported the
ALJ's decision to discount the opinions of the two healthcare professionals who
evaluated Plaintiff's mental condition, (see id. at 9-12), and Plaintiff does not take issue
with this aspect of the Magistrate Judge's analysis.
not "play doctor" by declining to incorporate the alleged impairment and limitations into
an RFC finding.
Likewise, as for Plaintiff's contention that the ALJ also "played doctor" in
discounting the opinions of various medical professionals regarding Plaintiff's physical
limitations, the Court again agrees with the Magistrate Judge that the ALJ instead
engaged in the appropriate function of determining, in light of the record, what weight
should be given to these opinions. (See id. at 14-21.) Contrary to Plaintiff’s assertion
that the ALJ “simply ignored medical opinions as to [Plaintiff’s] physical limitations” and
substituted “her own independent conclusions” on matters that demand medical
expertise, (Dkt. 27, Plaintiff’s Objections at 4), the Magistrate Judge carefully reviewed
the ALJ’s decision and found (i) that the ALJ had supplied the requisite “good reasons”
for discounting the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating physician, Dr. Harris, (R & R at 15-17),
(ii) that substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s determination to give little weight to
the opinion of Dr. Glowacki, an examining physician, (id. at 17-19), and (iii) that the
ALJ’s decision to discount a portion of the opinion of another examining physician, Dr.
Montasir, was likewise supported by substantial evidence, (id. at 20-21).2
While Plaintiff evidently takes issue with certain aspects of the Magistrate
Judge’s analysis on these points, he fails to suggest any basis for this Court to disturb
the Magistrate Judge’s ultimate conclusions. Regarding the ALJ’s assessment of the
opinion of Dr. Harris, Plaintiff emphasizes the Magistrate Judge’s recognition that Dr.
Alternatively, to the extent that the ALJ might have erred in her assessment of
Dr. Montasir’s opinion, the Magistrate Judge opined that any such error was harmless.
(See id. at 21.) The Court addresses this finding of harmless error below.
Harris’s November 30, 2012 opinion “may have been relevant” as “offered within
months” after Plaintiff’s last ensured date of June 30, 2012. (Id. at 15.) Yet, the
Magistrate Judge then went on to address the other reasons given by the ALJ for
discounting this opinion — most notably, that it was “based primarily on [Plaintiff’s]
subjective complaints,” and consisted in part of “checked boxes” without reference to
objective findings from Dr. Harris’s examinations of Plaintiff — and concluded that these
reasons were “supported by substantial evidence.” (Id. at 16-17.) Plaintiff has not
identified any infirmities in these findings, and they provide an ample basis for upholding
the ALJ’s decision to discount Dr. Harris’s opinion.
Similarly, although Plaintiff accuses the Magistrate Judge of engaging in
“unsupported speculation” by suggesting a possible link between Dr. Harris’s November
30, 2012 opinion and Dr. Glowacki’s “extreme findings” in a November 14, 2012
examination of Plaintiff, (Plaintiff’s Objections at 5-6 (citing R & R at 19)), Plaintiff again
fails to challenge the remainder of the Magistrate Judge’s analysis of the ALJ’s decision
to accord little weight to Dr. Glowacki’s opinion, (see R & R at 18-19). Finally, as for
Plaintiff’s complaint that the ALJ “erroneously suggested that only subjective complaints
supported” the opinion of Dr. Montasir regarding Plaintiff’s lower extremity limitations,
(Plaintiff’s Objections at 7), the Court concurs in the Magistrate Judge’s finding that the
ALJ stayed within her proper role of evaluating the medical evidence for the purpose of
determining Plaintiff’s RFC, as opposed to engaging in unwarranted “interpret[ation] [of]
raw medical data beyond her expertise,” (R & R at 21). In particular, the ALJ fairly read
Dr. Montasir’s report as relying largely on Plaintiff’s subjective complaints to opine that
Plaintiff could not walk beyond a quarter of a block, stand for more than 30 minutes at a
time, or bend, (see ALJ Decision at 10, Admin. Record at 21 (citing Admin. Record at
290, 294)), and Plaintiff’s different reading of this report rests upon his own effort to
“play doctor,” as it were, by forging explicit links (as Dr. Montasir himself did not)
between objective findings and specific limitations in Plaintiff’s ability to walk, stand, or
Alternatively, even if the ALJ erred in discounting Dr. Montasir’s opinion as to
Plaintiff’s limited ability to walk, stand, or bend, the Magistrate Judge determined that
any such error would be harmless in light of the testimony of the vocational expert
(“VE”) that “jobs would exist in the national economy even with the[se] additional
limitations.” (R & R at 21.) As his second objection to the R & R, Plaintiff contends that
this harmless error analysis runs afoul of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R.
pt. 404, subpt. P, app'x 2, rule 201.14, because acceptance of these additional
limitations would effectively restrict Plaintiff to sedentary work, and would therefore
mandate a finding of disability for an individual who, like Plaintiff, was approaching
advanced age on his last insured date.3
This argument is defeated by the VE’s testimony at the administrative hearing.
Specifically, after the VE identified a number of light work positions that a hypothetical
Of course, given the Court’s conclusion that the ALJ did not err in discounting a
portion of Dr. Montasir’s opinion, there is no need to even rely on harmless error
analysis to overcome this purported deficiency in the ALJ’s decision. Moreover, while
the Defendant Commissioner raised the issue of harmless error in the course of the
parties’ briefing on their underlying summary judgment motions, (see Dkt. 25,
Defendant’s Motion for Remand and Response to Plaintiff’s Motion, Mem. in Support at
21-22), Plaintiff addressed this matter for the first time in his objections to the R & R.
Under these circumstances, Plaintiff has likely forfeited his opportunity to challenge the
R & R on this ground. See Murr v. United States, 200 F.3d 895, 902 n.1 (6th Cir. 2000).
Nonetheless, the Court elects to address this objection on the merits.
claimant with Plaintiff’s background and limitations could perform, the ALJ then asked
whether this hypothetical claimant would still be able to perform these jobs if he were
further limited to “stand[ing] up for a half hour at a time” and “need[ed] opportunities to
either sit or walk, but [his] walking would be limited to maybe a quarter of a city block.”
(Admin. Record at 81.) The VE responded that these additional limitations, reflecting
“essentially a sit/stand option,” would “reduce the number [of positions] by
approximately two-thirds,” leaving “2,000 assembly [jobs], 1,300 packaging, and 700
inspection.” (Id.) When asked whether a further limitation to “occasional postural
activities such as climbing stairs or crouching or crawling or kneeling or stooping or
bending” would “affect these jobs at all,” the VE responded in the negative. (Id.)
Thus, as the Magistrate Judge correctly observed, the VE “testified that jobs
would exist in the national economy even with the additional limitations” identified in Dr.
Montasir’s report. (R & R at 21.) To the extent that Plaintiff suggests that these
additional limitations would effectively restrict him to sedentary rather than light work,
and thereby trigger a finding of disability under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, the
courts have rejected the contention that a claimant who is limited to less than a full
range of light work should be deemed restricted to sedentary positions. See, e.g.,
Ramirez v. Commissioner of Social Security, No. 10-12042, 2011 WL 3359689, at *7-*8
(E.D. Mich. May 10, 2011), adopted in 2011 WL 3359668 (E.D. Mich. Aug. 4, 2011).
Accordingly, the Court finds no infirmity in the Magistrate Judge’s harmless error
The Court has reviewed de novo the entire record and the pleadings, giving
particular attention to those portions of the record relevant to Plaintiff's objections. 28
U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3). For the reasons stated above, the
Court ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge's July 21, 2017 report and recommendation (Dkt.
26) in its entirety, and OVERRULES Plaintiff's August 4, 2017 objections to the report
and recommendation (Dkt. 27). Accordingly, Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment
(Dkt. 16) is DENIED, Defendant’s motion for remand (Dkt. 19, 25) is GRANTED, and
this matter will be remanded to the Defendant Commissioner under sentence four of 42
U.S.C. § 405(g) for the limited purpose identified in the Magistrate Judge's report and
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Date: September 28, 2017
s/Marianne O. Battani
MARIANNE O. BATTANI
United States District Judge
CERTIFICATE OF SERVICE
The undersigned certifies that the foregoing Order was served upon counsel of record via the Court's ECF System to their
respective email addresses or First Class U.S. mail to the non-ECF participants on September 28, 2017.
s/ Kay Doaks
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