Weaver v. Commissioner of Social Security
OPINION ; signed by Chief Judge Robert J. Jonker (Chief Judge Robert J. Jonker, ymc)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
Case No. 1:16-CV-300
HON. ROBERT J. JONKER
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
This is a social security action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial
review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(Commissioner). Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner’s decision denying her claim for
Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI
of the Social Security Act. Section 405(g) limits the Court to a review of the administrative record,
and provides that if the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, it shall be
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The scope of judicial review in a social security case is limited to determining
whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards in making her decision and whether
there exists in the record substantial evidence supporting that decision. See Brainard v. Sec’y of
Health & Human Servs., 889 F.2d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 1989). The Court may not conduct a de novo
review of the case, resolve evidentiary conflicts, or decide questions of credibility. See Garner v.
Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984). It is the Commissioner who is charged with finding the
facts relevant to an application for disability benefits, and her findings are conclusive provided they
are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. See
Cohen v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 964 F.2d 524, 528 (6th Cir. 1992) (citations omitted).
It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.
See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Bogle v. Sullivan, 998 F.2d 342, 347 (6th Cir.
1993). In determining the substantiality of the evidence, the Court must consider the evidence on
the record as a whole and take into account whatever evidence in the record fairly detracts from its
weight. See Richardson v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 735 F.2d 962, 963 (6th Cir. 1984). The
substantial evidence standard presupposes the existence of a zone within which the decision maker
can properly rule either way, without judicial interference. See Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545
(6th Cir. 1986) (citation omitted). This standard affords to the administrative decision maker
considerable latitude, and indicates that a decision supported by substantial evidence will not be
reversed simply because the evidence would have supported a contrary decision. See Bogle, 998
F.2d at 347; Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545.
Plaintiff was forty-three years of age on her alleged disability onset date.
(PageID.129, 142.) She completed high school and worked previously as a warehouse worker,
secretary, and office manager. (PageID.82, 94, 230.) Plaintiff first applied for benefits on July 13,
2010, alleging that she had been disabled since November 8, 2009, due to degenerative disc disease
and depression. (PageID.101.) Plaintiff’s application was denied, after which time she requested
a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). On February 29, 2012, Plaintiff appeared
before ALJ Nicholas Ohanesian for an administrative hearing. (PageID.114.) In a written decision
dated March 30, 2012, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.111–128.)
Plaintiff did not further pursue this application, but instead reapplied for benefits on
May 11, 2013, this time alleging that she had been disabled since March 31, 2012, the day after the
prior decision, due to degenerative disc disease, sciatica, chronic bronchitis, anxiety, coronary artery
disease, and major depression. (PageID.129, 142, 214–215.) These applications were also denied,
after which time Plaintiff again requested a hearing before an ALJ. (PageID.159–172.) On June 16,
2014, Plaintiff appeared with her counsel before ALJ William Reamon with testimony being offered
by Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (PageID.71–98.) In a written decision dated September 26,
2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PageID.45–69.) The Appeals Council
declined to review the ALJ’s determination, making it the Commissioner’s final decision in the
matter. (PageID.36–41.) This action followed, seeking judicial review of the ALJ’s decision under
42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
The social security regulations articulate a five-step sequential process for evaluating
disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a-f), 416.920(a-f).1 If the Commissioner can make a
An individual who is working and engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found to be
“disabled” regardless of medical findings (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b));
An individual who does not have a “severe impairment” will not be found “disabled” (20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c));
If an individual is not working and is suffering from a severe impairment which meets the duration
requirement and which “meets or equals” a listed impairment in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of
Regulations No. 4, a finding of “disabled” will be made without consideration of vocational factors
(20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d));
dispositive finding at any point in the review, no further finding is required. See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). The regulations also provide that if a claimant suffers from a
nonexertional impairment as well as an exertional impairment, both are considered in determining
the claimant’s residual functional capacity (RFC). See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945.
Plaintiff has the burden of proving the existence and severity of limitations caused
by her impairments and that she is precluded from performing past relevant work through step four.
Jones v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). At step five, it is the
Commissioner’s burden “to identify a significant number of jobs in the economy that accommodate
the claimant’s residual functional capacity (determined at step four) and vocational profile.” Id.
ALJ Reamon determined Plaintiff’s claim failed at step five. The ALJ began his
discussion by first stating that he found no new and material evidence had been entered into the
record since the prior decision. (PageID.48.) Accordingly, he indicated that he had adopted the RFC
from the prior decision consistent with Sixth Circuit and agency authority. (PageID.48.) Proceeding
with the analysis, at step one, ALJ Reamon found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since her alleged disability onset date. (PageID.51.) At step two, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) coronary artery disease; (2)
degenerative disc disease to the lumbar spine; (3) hypertension; (4) obesity; (5) an affective disorder;
and (6) anxiety. (PageID.51.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment
or combination of impairments that met or equaled the requirements of the Listing of Impairments
If an individual is capable of performing work he or she has done in the past, a finding of “not
disabled” must be made (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e));
If an individual’s impairment is so severe as to preclude the performance of past work, other factors
including age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity must be considered
to determine if other work can be performed. (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f)).
found in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. (PageID.51–53.) At step four, the ALJ determined
Plaintiff retained the RFC based on all the impairments:
to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and
416.967(a) with exceptions. Specifically, the claimant is able to lift
up to 10 pounds occasionally. She requires the option to alternate
between sitting and standing positions at 15-minute intervals
throughout the workday. The claimant is able to climb stairs and
ramps occasionally, but is never to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds.
She is able to frequently balance and occasionally stoop, kneel,
crouch and crawl. She must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme
cold, heat, humidity, vibration and exposure to pulmonary irritants,
such as fumes, odors, dusts, gases and poorly ventilated areas.
Mentally, her work is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks.
(PageID.54.) Continuing with the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to
perform any of her past relevant work. (PageID.62.) At the fifth step, the ALJ questioned the VE
to determine whether a significant number of jobs exist in the economy that Plaintiff could perform
given her limitations. See Richardson, 735 F.2d at 964. The VE testified that Plaintiff could
perform other work as a production assembler (2,400 Michigan jobs and 28,000 national jobs),
inspector tester (700 Michigan jobs and 13,000 national jobs), and machine operator (1,300
Michigan jobs and 44,000 national jobs). (PageID.95.) Based on this record, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff was capable of making a successful adjustment to work that exists in significant numbers
in the national economy. (PageID.64.)
Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from March 31, 2012,
through September 26, 2014, the date of decision. (PageID.64.)
In assessing Plaintiff’s present claim for benefits, ALJ Reamon indicated he adopted
the RFC findings previously articulated by ALJ Ohanesian. (PageID.48.) Plaintiff argues that
because her physical and mental impairments worsened subsequent to ALJ Ohanesian’s decision,
the decision by ALJ Reamon to adopt this previous RFC is not supported by substantial evidence.
The issue of whether or when a subsequent ALJ must follow an RFC determination articulated by
a prior ALJ has been addressed by the Sixth Circuit in Dennard v. Secretary of Health and Human
Services, 907 F.2d 598 (6th Cir.1990) and Drummond v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 126 F.3d 837 (6th Cir.
1997), as well as by the Social Security Administration in Acquiescence Rulings 98–3(6) and
Dennard v. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Dennard filed an application for benefits which was eventually denied on the ground
that while he could no longer perform his past relevant work, he retained the ability to perform
sedentary work which existed in significant numbers. Dennard, 907 F.2d at 598–99. Dennard later
submitted another application for benefits. This latter application was denied by an ALJ on the
ground that Dennard could perform his past relevant work. Id. at 599. An appeal of this decision
to federal district court was unsuccessful. The Sixth Circuit reversed the district court and ordered
that the matter be remanded for further consideration. Id. at 600. Specifically, the court held that the
latter ALJ was estopped, on res judicata grounds, from contradicting the prior determination that
Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. Id.
Drummond v. Commissioner of Social Security.
Drummond filed an application for benefits which was denied based on a finding that
while she could no longer perform her past relevant work she could perform sedentary work which
existed in significant numbers. Drummond, 126 F.3d at 838. Drummond later filed another
application for benefits which was denied based on the finding that she retained the ability to
perform medium work. Id. at 838–39. After unsuccessfully appealing the matter in federal district
court, Drummond pursued the matter in the Sixth Circuit. Id. at 839–40. Based, in part, on the
Dennard decision, the Drummond court held that “[w]hen the Commissioner has made a final
decision concerning a claimant’s entitlement to benefits, the Commissioner is bound by this
determination absent changed circumstances.” Id. at 840–42. Thus, if an earlier ALJ makes a
finding regarding a claimant’s RFC, a later ALJ is bound by that RFC determination absent evidence
to the contrary. See, e.g., Gay v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 520 F. App’x 354, 356 (6th Cir. 2013).
Acquiescence Rulings 98–3(6) and 98–4(6).
Finding that Dennard and Drummond conflicted with Social Security policy, the
Social Security Administration issued Acquiescence Rulings 98–3(6) and 98–4(6). See Acquiescence
Ruling 98–3(6), 1998 WL 274051 (S.S.A. June 1, 1998); Acquiescence Ruling 98–4(6), 1998 WL
274052 (S.S.A. June 1, 1998). With respect to how Dennard and Drummond differed from Social
Security policy, the Social Security Administration observed:
Under SSA policy, if a determination or decision on a disability claim
has become final, the Agency may apply administrative res judicata
with respect to a subsequent disability claim under the same title of
the Act if the same parties, facts and issues are involved in both the
prior and subsequent claims. However, if the subsequent claim
involves deciding whether the claimant is disabled during a period
that was not adjudicated in the final determination or decision on the
prior claim, SSA considers the issue of disability with respect to the
unadjudicated period to be a new issue that prevents the application
of administrative res judicata. Thus, when adjudicating a subsequent
disability claim involving an unadjudicated period, SSA considers the
facts and issues de novo in determining disability with respect to the
Acquiescence Ruling 98–3(6), 1998 WL 274051; Acquiescence Ruling 98–4(6), 1998 WL 274052.
As the Social Security Administration recognized, the Dennard and Drummond decisions conflicted
with Social Security policy. Specifically, the Sixth Circuit concluded that where a final decision by
the Social Security Administration contains findings regarding the claimant’s ability to perform her
past relevant work (Dennard) or the claimant’s RFC (Drummond), the Administration “may not
make a different finding in adjudicating a subsequent disability claim with an unadjudicated period
arising under the same title of the Act as the prior claim unless new and additional evidence or
changed circumstances provide a basis for a different finding.” Acquiescence Ruling 98–3(6), 1998
WL 274051; Acquiescence Ruling 98–4(6).
Accordingly, the Social Security Administration concluded that it would apply
Dennard and Drummond, within the Sixth Circuit under the following procedure:
When adjudicating a subsequent disability claim with an
unadjudicated period arising under the same title of the Act as the
prior claim, adjudicators must adopt such a finding from the final
decision by an ALJ or the Appeals Council on the prior claim in
determining whether the claimant is disabled with respect to the
unadjudicated period unless there is new and material evidence
relating to such a finding or there has been a change in the law,
regulations or rulings affecting the finding or the method for arriving
at the finding.
Acquiescence Ruling 98–3(6), 1998 WL 274051; Acquiescence Ruling 98–4(6), 1998 WL 274052.
In other words, the Social Security Administration adopted, with respect to applications brought
within the geographic territory of the Sixth Circuit, the holdings in Dennard and Drummond. In
sum, an Administrative Law Judge is bound by a previous Administrative Law Judge’s RFC
determination absent changed circumstances.
ALJ Reamon’s RFC Assessment.
In his decision denying Plaintiff’s claim, ALJ Reamon found that “[b]ased on the
evidence after the date of the [prior] decision, the undersigned finds that [Plaintiff’s] condition has
not worsened and there is no new and material evidence to alter the above residual functional
capacity given. As such, the same residual functional capacity is warranted and adopted.”
(PageID.55.) Plaintiff disagrees with this assessment, arguing that both her lower back and mental
health conditions have worsened since the prior decision.
Plaintiff’s Degenerative Disc Disease
Regarding Plaintiff’s lower back, the record from the previous decision noted that
Plaintiff injured her back in a November 2009 lifting incident. (PageID.118.) Plaintiff was treated
with medication at the emergency department and attended a course of physical therapy in December
2009 and January 2010. (PageID.118.) Plaintiff also treated at Seeds of Grace ministries’ Renewed
Hope Health Clinic where she generally was treated with medication. (PageID.319, 322, 325, 327.)
She was also referred to a neurosurgeon on March 12, 2011, who, according to Plaintiff,
recommended injections to treat her pain, though it does not appear such injections ever took place.
(PageID.322–323.) Plaintiff also underwent a consultative examination on November 4, 2010. She
reported pain after sitting for a half hour and after standing for fifteen to twenty minutes.
(PageID.307.) She had decreased range of motion in the lumbar spine limited to sixty degrees and
she sat askew in her chair secondary to her pain. (PageID.308.) Plaintiff also had an MRI on
December 2, 2010. The impression of the scan was a “small to moderate broad based posterior disc
protrusion at L4/5, slightly eccentric towards the left and with this disc abutting the central aspect
of the left L5 nerve root. There is no clear evidence for nerve root compression or displacement.”
(PageID.351.) As the prior ALJ recognized, these records taken together demonstrated a significant
limitation on Plaintiff’s ability to function, and ALJ Ohanesian accordingly assigned a highly
restrictive RFC for a reduced range of sedentary work. (PageID.118.)
Plaintiff argues her condition worsened subsequent to ALJ Ohanesian’s opinion by
pointing to an August 20, 2013, MRI. This scan was compared against the December 2010 MRI.
(PageID.608.) The MRI revealed “[d]egenerative disc disease in the lower lumbar spine, most
advanced at L4-L5, with a moderate size central and left paracentral L4-L5 disc protrusion, the left
paracentral component of the disc protrusion appearing to impinge upon at least the left L5 and
possibly some of the left sacral nerve roots . . . . The L4-L5 disc protrusion is significantly increased
in size from 12-2-10 with associated worsening impingement.” (PageID.383.) As ALJ Reamon
correctly noted, on its own this record does not demonstrate that Plaintiff’s condition had worsened
or that she was further limited such that her current condition was incompatible with the prior RFC.
This is so because, as the Sixth Circuit has observed, “the mere diagnosis” of a condition “says
nothing about the severity of the condition.” Higgs v. Bowen, 880 F.2d 860, 863 (6th Cir. 1988); see
also McKenzie v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., No. 99–3400, 2000 WL 687680 at *5 (6th Cir. May 19,
2000) (“the mere diagnosis of an impairment does not render an individual disabled nor does it
reveal anything about the limitations, if any, it imposes upon an individual”). The record contains
no medical source opinion–treating or otherwise–opining how this record demonstrates Plaintiff is
now further limited than she was as of the prior decision. Indeed, as ALJ Reamon noted, there was
“no evidence” the degenerative disc disease documented by the latest MRI “actually increased her
pain or provided her with additional limitations.” (PageID.56.) This is supported by the ALJ’s
observation of the minimal treatment Plaintiff received for degenerative disc disease after the prior
decision. The ALJ noted, in fact, that Plaintiff did not again seek treatment for her back pain until
February 2014 when she only received a refill of her medications. (PageID.56.) At bottom, the
record does not demonstrate Plaintiff’s lower back condition worsened subsequent to the prior
decision such that the ALJ erred in applying the prior RFC.
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in making the above observation without
considering the fact that she was unable to afford consistent treatment due to the lack of treatment.
(PageID.609.) Plaintiff points to an agency ruling stating that “the adjudicator must not draw any
inferences about an individual’s symptoms and their functional effects from a failure to seek or
pursue regular medical treatment without first considering any explanations that the individual may
provide, or other information in the case record, that may explain infrequent or irregular medical
visits or failure to seek medical treatment.” This includes the individual’s inability to afford
treatment. SSR 96–7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *7–8 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996). The issue of Plaintiff’s
ability to afford health care was placed squarely before the ALJ at the administrative hearing. When
the ALJ asked if Plaintiff had seen anyone since the MRI, Plaintiff responded that she had not
because she had no insurance. (PageID.81.) The ALJ observed, however, that Plaintiff was
nonetheless able to obtain the MRI. (PageID.81.) In his decision, ALJ Reamon also noted Plaintiff
was hopeful she could have something done with her back in April 2014, but that she was denied
Medicaid. (PageID.58.) In this, the ALJ gave appropriate consideration to Plaintiff’s ability to
obtain treatment and, given the severity of Plaintiff’s complaints, it was not unreasonable for the ALJ
to expect Plaintiff would seek more intensive care. In any event, “[t]he party seeking to avoid the
application of res judicata bears the burden of proving changed circumstances.” Merrill v. Colvin,
No. 2:14-CV-262, 2015 WL 1637435, at *2 (S.D. Ohio Apr. 13, 2015) (citing Drummond, 126 F.3d
at 843.) Plaintiff has not satisfied this burden.
Plaintiff’s Emotional Impairments
ALJ Ohanesian also thoroughly examined the record before him regarding Plaintiff’s
depression. At step three, he considered whether Plaintiff’s depression met or equaled the criteria
of a listed impairment. (PageID.119.) ALJ Ohanesian considered a consultative examination that
diagnosed Plaintiff with a Global Assessment of Functioning score of 55, which suggested moderate
symptoms or difficulties in social or occupational functioning. (PageID.117.) The examiner also
diagnosed Plaintiff with a major depressive disorder as well as panic disorder, assigned a guarded
prognosis, and noted Plaintiff required psychotherapy. (PageID.117.) ALJ Ohanesian also
considered Plaintiff’s ability to do some activities, such as washing dishes, watching television, and
visiting her grandchildren. (PageID.117). In social functioning, the ALJ found she had mild
difficulties. She got along fairly well with others, including family members, friends, neighbors and
coworkers. (PageID.117.) Proceeding to the RFC discussion, ALJ Ohanesian noted Plaintiff had
testified she attended monthly counseling sessions, she had disrupted sleep, trouble focusing, and
feelings of guilt or worthlessness. She also had suicidal thoughts but no attempts, isolated herself,
and did not want to go out in public. (PageID.120.) The ALJ also assigned reduced weight to the
opinion of a social worker who found, among other things, that Plaintiff had mild difficulty
following work rules, moderate difficulty relating to coworkers and supervisors, and marked
difficulty dealing with the public. He doubted Plaintiff would be able to complete full time work,
week after week. (PageID.121.) The ALJ found, however, that this opinion was inconsistent with
Plaintiff’s reported activities. (PageID.121.) After considering all this, ALJ Ohanesian limited
Plaintiff to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. (PageID.118.)
Plaintiff’s allegations in the present application are generally similar to those she
previously made. At the administrative hearing with ALJ Reamon, for example, she testified she had
trouble sleeping, only ate two meals a day, had a poor memory, and had suicidal thoughts a couple
times a month. (PageID.85.) She stated she isolated herself because of panic attacks. She testified
she could not be around large groups of people. (PageID.86.) She reported, however, being able to
have coffee with friends and visit her children and grandchildren a few times a week. (PageID.277.)
All this tracks with her prior assertions. Likewise, the opinions of her social worker, Davis Morse,
generally mirror those of the social worker from the prior opinion. (PageID.585–590.)
In support of her contention of a worsening condition, Plaintiff largely depends on
an inpatient psychiatric hospitalization at Forest View Hospital in October 2013. At that time,
Plaintiff was admitted for planning to overdose on her prescription medications. The intake note
found Plaintiff was increasingly depressed after the death of her mother, and felt overwhelmed.
Plaintiff stated that during this hospitalization she attended classes and her
medications were adjusted.
After this hospitalization, Plaintiff appeared
“somewhat better” but was still depressed and overwhelmed. (PageID.411.) Plaintiff continued to
visit with a social worker, and at a November 14, 2013, medication review, Plaintiff stated she was
“feeling a lot better.” She stated this was the first day she had not been crying. She spoke of
Christmas shopping for her grandchildren. (PageID.399.) However, at a periodic review in
December, her social worker indicated Plaintiff’s current and past trauma had not resolved, and that
she required continued treatment. She had difficulty leaving the house, frequent anxiety episodes,
and racing thoughts and heart rate. (PageID.394.)
To be sure, Plaintiff’s psychiatric hospitalization demonstrates a downward departure
from her condition that was before ALJ Ohanesian. As that ALJ noted, Plaintiff had not undergone
any psychiatric hospitalizations. Now she has. But any increase in the severity of Plaintiff’s
depression appears to be temporary in nature. By all accounts, after her hospitalization she returned
to her previous condition, as limited as that might be, and accordingly it does not appear that
Plaintiff’s symptoms worsened or were expected to worsen such that this more limited condition
could be expected to last for at least twelve months. See Vaughn v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., No.
14-CV-12496, 2015 WL 5216165, at *4 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 4, 2015) (collecting cases). True, she
continues to have suicidal thoughts, but that was the case prior to ALJ Ohanesian’s decision as well.
She also persists in isolating herself and feels overwhelmed, but is nonetheless able to visit with
family and friends. Again, this is consistent with the record that was before ALJ Ohanesian. In
short, as with her back condition, the ALJ’s decision that no new and material evidence existed to
alter the prior RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence.
ALJ Reamon’s Credibility Determination.
Plaintiff makes an additional argument that the ALJ erred by stating it was Plaintiff’s
familial difficulties, rather than an inherent illness, that was the “primary rationale for not assessing
greater mental health limitations.” (PageID.611–612.) It appears Plaintiff challenges the ALJ’s
As the Sixth Circuit has long recognized, “pain alone, if the result of a medical
impairment, may be severe enough to constitute disability.” King v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 968, 974 (6th
Cir. 1984); see also Grecol v. Halter, 46 F. App’x 773, 775 (6th Cir. 2002). As the relevant Social
Security regulations make clear, however, a claimant’s “statements about [her] pain or other
symptoms will not alone establish that [she is] disabled.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a), 416.929(a); see
also Walters v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 531 (6th Cir. 1997) (quoting 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1529(a)); Hash v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 309 F. App’x 981, 989 (6th Cir. 2009). Instead, a
claimant’s assertions of disabling pain and limitation are evaluated under the following standard:
First, we examine whether there is objective medical evidence of an
underlying medical condition. If there is, we then examine: (1)
whether objective medical evidence confirms the severity of the
alleged pain arising from the condition; or (2) whether the objectively
established medical condition is of such a severity that it can
reasonably be expected to produce the alleged disabling pain.
Walters, 127 F.3d at 531 (citations omitted). This standard is often referred to as the Duncan
standard. See Workman v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 105 F. App’x 794, 801 (6th Cir. 2004).
Accordingly, “subjective complaints may support a finding of disability only where
objective medical evidence confirms the severity of the alleged symptoms.” Id. (citing Blankenship
v. Bowen, 874 F.2d 1116, 1123 (6th Cir. 1989)). However, where the objective medical evidence
fails to confirm the severity of a claimant’s subjective allegations, the ALJ “has the power and
discretion to weigh all of the evidence and to resolve the significant conflicts in the administrative
record.” Id. (citing Walters, 127 F.3d at 531).
In this respect, it is recognized that the ALJ’s credibility assessment “must be
accorded great weight and deference.” Id. (citing Walters, 127 F.3d at 531); see also Heston v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 536 (6th Cir. 2001) (quoting Myers v. Richardson, 471 F.2d
1265, 1267 (6th Cir. 1972) (“[i]t [i]s for the [Commissioner] and his examiner, as the fact-finders,
to pass upon the credibility of the witnesses and weigh and evaluate their testimony”). It is not for
this Court to reevaluate such evidence anew, and so long as the ALJ’s determination is supported
by substantial evidence, it must stand. The ALJ found Plaintiff’s subjective allegations to not be fully
credible, a finding that should not be lightly disregarded. See Varley v. Sec’y of Health & Human
Servs., 820 F.2d 777, 780 (6th Cir. 1987). In fact, as the Sixth Circuit has stated, “[w]e have held
that an administrative law judge’s credibility findings are virtually unchallengeable.” Ritchie v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 540 F. App’x 508, 511 (6th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted).
The thrust of Plaintiff’s argument is that whether due to internal or external forces,
her limitations are the same, and the ALJ should have found that her depression limited her to a
greater extent than that accounted for in the RFC. (PageID.611–612.) The Court disagrees that ALJ
Reamon used the cause of Plaintiff’s depression as his primary rationale for discounting Plaintiff’s
allegations. The ALJ’s discussion on this point is as follows:
First, it is clear from the record that external stressors resulting from
the claimant’s familial, financial and relationship difficulties are
significantly contributing to the claimant’s symptoms of anxiety and
depression. The claimant is going through marital problems and has
significant problems with her children, as one was homeless with his
own kids. Her kids are always over, bringing their kids and it appears
that claimant is all too often compelled to  take care of her
grandkids on a regular basis. This state of affairs contradicts some of
the assertions that she is unable to do anything and instead, relies
upon her family. Most of her therapy sessions center on how to deal
with her ongoing familial problems. Although it is quite conceivable
that the claimant is experiencing some of the symptoms she has
alleged, the evidence reveals that these symptoms are due in large part
to difficult domestic situational factors rather than to inherent mental
illness. That claimant rather consistently responds to the calls and
demands of her family is commendable but does not tend to support
the proposition that she is somehow disabled in her attempts to
remedy all this familial tumult.
(PageID.60.) The ALJ went on to note that
Her ability to care for her 8-grandchildren on occasion is evidence
that she is not as incapable of caring for herself and thus, is at most
moderately limited in the area of her activities of daily living.
Socially, it appears that most of her problems center around getting
along with her family and there is no evidence that she has difficulty
getting along with others outside her family. In fact, she does admit
to going to her friends’ home to visit in spite of her claimed anxiety.
The ability to leave her home and see friends is evidence that she is
not as limited as she claims and thus, is found to be mildly limited in
her social functioning.
As the above discussion makes clear, the ALJ did not discount Plaintiff’s credibility
because her depression was due to familial strife rather than an internal illness. Rather, the ALJ
noted inconsistencies within Plaintiff’s testimony and her activities. Indeed, as the ALJ noted, much
of Plaintiff’s therapy centered on her family life and focused on setting up boundaries.
She was “over involved in wanting all her family members to get along.”
(PageID.431.) For example, on November 6, 2013, Plaintiff reported that she “just wants to be in
my room for a while and journal, but we have to babysit a new granddaughter and [my husband]
won’t let me have my space.” (PageID.405.) Nonetheless she wanted to be there to take care of her
grandchildren. (PageID.428.) Outside of her family, she reported getting along “OK” with friends.
(PageID.374.) She reported being able to get along with authority figures. (PageID.243.)
Ms. Brenda Gilbert, a friend of Plaintiff’s, reported Plaintiff didn’t leave the house because of pain,
and didn’t mention depression or any other mental ailment as limiting her social activities.
(PageID.250.) Rather, Plaintiff was afraid to go out because of her pain. (PageID.251.) Clearly, as
the ALJ found, Plaintiff’s family is a significant source of stress to Plaintiff, and Plaintiff continues
to be limited by her degenerative disc disease. Nonetheless, the ALJ’s observation that Plaintiff’s
activities are inconsistent with her testimony is supported by substantial evidence. While Plaintiff
is undoubtedly limited by her conditions, such limitations are adequately accommodated in the RFC.
This claim of error is denied.
In accordance with the Opinion entered this date:
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED. A
separate judgment shall issue.
December 27, 2016
/s/ Robert J. Jonker
ROBERT J. JONKER
CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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