Meech v. Commissioner of Social Security
Order rejecting the Report and Recommendation (Doc. # 18 ) of the Magistrate Judge and affirming the Commissioner's decision. Judge John R. Adams on 9/24/13. (K,C)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO
SHAWN MICHAEL MEECH,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN
CASE NO.: 1:12CV2134
JUDGE JOHN R. ADAMS
(“Commissioner”) Objections to the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation (“R&R”).
This action was referred to Magistrate Judge Kathleen B. Burke pursuant to local rule 72.2(b)(1)
for a Report on the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to deny Claimant Shawn
Michael Meech’s application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the
Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §1381 et seq. The Magistrate Judge recommends that
the ALJ’s decision denying SSI to Plaintiff be reversed and remanded back to the ALJ for further
fact-finding, analysis, and articulation. Commissioner timely objected to the R&R.
Law and Analysis
The R&R sets forth a thorough review of the facts of this matter and this Court adopts the
facts as set forth by the R&R. When a magistrate judge submits an R&R, this Court is required
to conduct a de novo review of the portions of the Report to which an objection has been made.
42 U.S.C. § 1381(c)(3). This Court’s review of the ALJ’s decision is limited to determining
whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s findings when viewing the record as a whole.
Hephner v. Matthews, 574 F.2d 359, 362 (6th Cir. 1978). Substantial evidence is more than a
mere scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389,
401 (1971); Besaw v. Sec’y of Health and Human Services, 966 F.2d 1028, 1030 (6th Cir. 1992).
Simply, substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 306 U.S. 197, 229 (1938).
If substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision, the reviewing court must affirm the ALJ’s
decision even if substantial evidence or even a preponderance of the evidence also supports the
opposite position. Jones v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 477 (6th Cir. 2003); see also,
Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986). Additionally, a reviewing court cannot try
the case de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence, or decide questions of credibility. Garner v.
Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984).
This standard grants wide latitude to administrative decision makers. Mullen, 800 F.2d at
545. The standard presupposes that there is a ‘zone of choice’ within which the ALJ has
discretion. Id. An administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial
evidence may support a contrary decision. Id. However, in determining whether substantial
evidence supports the ALJ’s findings, the Court must examine the record as a whole and take
into account what fairly detracts from its weight. Wyatt v. Sec’y of Health and Human Services,
974 F.2d 680, 683 (6th Cir. 1992). The reviewing court must also consider whether the ALJ
followed proper legal standards. Queen City Home Health Care v. Sullivan, 978 F.2d 236, 243
(6th Cir. 1992).
A disability claimant must be unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity due to
the existence of a medical or physical impairment to receive benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A);
Colvin v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). A mental or physical
impairment is an “impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can
be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” Id. The inability to
engage in substantial gainful activity includes both the claimant’s past employment and any
other work existing in significant quantity in the economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); Harmon v.
Comm’r of Social Security, 168 F.3d 289, 291 (6th Cir. 1999).
To make a determination of disability, an ALJ is required to follow a five-step sequential
analysis according to agency regulations. The Five-Step analysis followed is:
If the claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled.
If claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity, his impairment must
be severe before he can be found to be disabled.
If claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity, is suffering from a
severe impairment that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous
period of at least twelve months, and his impairment meets or equals a
listed impairment, claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry.
If the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ
must assess Claimant’s residual functional capacity and use it to determine
if claimant’s impairment prevents him from doing past relevant work. If
claimant’s impairment does not prevent him from doing his past
relevant work, he is not disabled.
If claimant is unable to perform past relevant work, he is not disabled if,
based on his vocational factors and residual functional capacity, he is
capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (b)-(g); see also, Brown v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42
(1987). A claimant has the burden of proof at Steps One through Four and then the burden shifts
to the Commissioner at Step Five. Walters v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 529 (6th Cir.
This Court reviews whether the ALJ’s decision cited substantial evidence to support the
conclusion. In reviewing the ALJ’s decision, the reviewing court may not rely on post-hoc
rationalizations to legitimize the finding of the ALJ. SEC v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194 (1947).
(holding that a reviewing court, in assessing the decision of an administrative agency, must judge
its propriety solely by the grounds invoked by the agency.).
Here, the magistrate judge determined that the ALJ “erred at Step Three of the sequential
analysis because he failed to evaluate properly whether Meech’s physical impairments met or
equaled a Listing.” For this reason, the magistrate judge recommended that the final decision of
the Commissioner be reversed and remanded. The Commissioner objects to the R&R stating
that the magistrate judge improperly attempts to re-weigh medical evidence. Meech argues that
the Commissioner uses post hoc rationalizations to support the ALJ’s finding and asks that this
court adopt the magistrate judge’s R&R. The Commissioner argues that it is not relying on post
hoc rationalizations and that even if the ALJ’s decision failed to adequately explain the decision
at Step Three, such error is harmless since the decision as a whole provides substantial
explanation and analysis. See Ulman v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 714 (6th Cir. 2012)
(holding that the Commissioner is not attempting to offer post hoc justification of agency action
by invoking the harmless error argument).
The Commissioner contends that there is an appropriate amount of evidence in the record
to support the decision of the ALJ regardless of whether or not the rationale for denial of SSI for
a physical impairment was present in the Report. The Commissioner states that this qualifies as
a harmless mistake because further articulation for the ALJ’s reasoning would not change the
outcome of the case. See Skarbeck v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 500, 504 (7th Cir. 2004). According to
the Commissioner, therefore, because the record shows substantial evidence that Meech did not
meet a listed impairment, the ALJ’s failure to fully explain his rational in his Step Three analysis
After considering Commissioner’s objections to the R&R and conducting a de novo
review of the record, this Court agrees with the Commissioner.
Initially, the Court would note that Meech’s reliance on this Court’s prior decision in
May v. Commissioner, 2011 WL 3490229 (N.D.Ohio Aug. 10, 2011) is misplaced. In May, the
undersigned concluded that no proper objections had been filed by the Commissioner and
therefore concluded that no review of the underlying R&R was necessary. As such, it can hardly
be said that the undersigned has adopted the view espoused by Meech.
importantly, any harmless error review requires a review of the whole record. As a result, such
reviews are highly fact intensive and the citations to May and Reynolds offer only a general
overview of the Court’s duties.
As the undersigned has consistently found, the Court will not place form over substance
in these matters. In large part, Meech’s claims of error focus upon the fact that the subsection of
the ALJ’s order at Step Three does not contain a lengthy analysis.
In so doing, Meech
specifically seeks to elevate form over substance. As noted, the undersigned declines to do so.
In reviewing the Commissioner’s objection, the Court finds merit in the assertion that the
R&R errs in its harmless error review. In engaging in a harmless error review, the R&R properly
states the standard of review: “Application of harmless error may be appropriate where the
review of a decision as a whole leads to the conclusion that no reasonable fact finder, following
the correct procedure, could have resolved the factual matter in another manner.” (Emphasis
added.) While stating the standard properly, the R&R then states solely the evidence that Meech
argues supports a determination that a reasonable fact finder could have resolved the matter in
his favor. The R&R mentions only in passing that “the ALJ did discuss Meech’s physical
impairments at Step Two and in his RFC analysis.” In so doing, the R&R effectively substitutes
the Magistrate Judge’s decision for that of the ALJ. In that regard, the R&R makes no mention
of the review of Meech’s physical impairments that was conducted by the ALJ, nor does it make
any mention of the restrictions that the ALJ concluded were appropriate based upon his review
of the entirety of the medical evidence and Meech’s own testimony. In essence, the R&R gave
no deference to the ALJ’s review and in fact ignored that review. The Court finds such a review
to be in error.
An ALJ is not mandated to speak to all pieces of evidence in his decision. Kornecky v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 167 F. App’x 496, 508 (6th Cir. 2006). Although the ALJ did not
specifically address Meech’s physical impairments in his Step Three analysis, there is adequate
discussion of this medical evidence in his Step Four analysis, showing that he considered such
evidence. The Commissioner’s objections properly highlight that the ALJ thoroughly reviewed
the medical evidence and found certain limitations that resulted from Meech’s physical ailments.
None of those limitations suggest that Meech even closely meets or equals the listing that he now
claims should have been reviewed more fully. Accordingly, any procedural error in the ALJ’s
omission of the specific listing and a more specific analysis is harmless. The objection is
SUSTAINED. The R&R is REJECTED and the Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED.
This Court hereby rejects decision in the Magistrate Judge’s Report and
Recommendation. The Commissioner’s decision is hereby AFFIRMED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
___September 24, 2013____
/s/John R. Adams
JUDGE JOHN R. ADAMS
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
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