Wohler v. Saul

Decision Date31 March 2020
Docket NumberCASE NO. 1:19CV56
PartiesJANET CHRISTINE WOHLER, Plaintiff, v. ANDREW M. SAUL, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Ohio

MAGISTRATE JUDGE GEORGE J. LIMBERT

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Janet Christine Wohler ("Plaintiff") requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). ECF Dkt. #1. Plaintiff asserts that the administrative law judge's ("ALJ") decision is not supported by substantial evidence because he: (1) erred in evaluating opinion evidence; (2) improperly applied the "Grids" in a mechanical fashion; and (3) erred in his assessment of Plaintiff's credibility. ECF Dkt. #s 12, 16. For the following reasons, the Court REVERSES the ALJ's decision and REMANDS this case for reevaluation of Dr. Zielinski's opinion in part and Dr. Andrefsky's opinion in whole.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On April 9, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and DIB. ECF Dkt. #9 ("Tr.")2 at 16, 144, 160, 248. In her application, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning October 21, 2014 (when she was 51 years old) due to: multiple sclerosis, nystagmus, and doublevision. Id. at 16, 129, 145. Plaintiff's application was denied initially on August 20, 2015 and upon reconsideration on October 22, 2015. Id. at 16, 142, 144, 158, 160.

On November 3, 2015, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing. Tr. at 16, 179. On February 21, 2017, a hearing was held before an ALJ in which Plaintiff, with counsel present, and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. Id. at 16, 38. At the conclusion of this hearing, the ALJ told Plaintiff that she would issue a favorable outcome for her, finding her disabled. Id. at 16, 88. However, the initial ALJ became unavailable and the case was reassigned to another ALJ who held a second hearing on September 1, 2017. Id. at 16, 91. Plaintiff was again represented by counsel and testified, and a VE also testified. Id. at 91.

The second ALJ disagreed with the first ALJ's conclusion. Tr. at 16-17. He issued his decision on December 6, 2017, finding Plaintiff not disabled and denying her application for DIB. Id. at 13-29. Plaintiff requested a review of the hearing decision, and on November 20, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review. Id. at 1-4, 246-47.

On January 9, 2019, Plaintiff filed the instant suit seeking review of the ALJ's decision. ECF Dkt. #1. On April 17, 2019, Plaintiff filed a merits brief, and the Commissioner filed a merits brief on July 1, 2019. ECF Dkt. #s 12, 15. Plaintiff filed a reply brief on July 15, 2019. ECF Dkt. # 16. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned. ECF Dkt. #11.

II. RELEVANT PORTIONS OF THE ALJ'S DECISION

On December 6, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. at 13-29. The ALJ stated that Plaintiff was insured for a period of disability and DIB on October 21, 2014, the date she alleged she became disabled, and she remains insured for these benefits through June 30, 2021. Id. at 19. The ALJ further noted that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 21, 2014, the alleged onset date. Id. Continuing, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: multiple sclerosis and vision problems involving both eyes. Id. The ALJ then indicated that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 22.

After considering the record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b)3, except for the following limitations and restrictions: can frequently climb ramps and stairs but cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; can occasionally read large print but cannot read small print (newspaper, labels, books, etc.); cannot perform work requiring depth perception or peripheral vision; cannot work near unprotected heights or around moving mechanical parts; cannot operate motor vehicles for commercial purposes. Tr. at 22.

The ALJ then stated that Plaintiff has not been able to perform any of her past relevant work since October 21, 2014, the alleged disability onset date. Tr. at 27. He further found that Plaintiff was an individual closely approaching advanced age ever since October 21, 2014,the alleged disability onset date. Id. at 28. The ALJ found that Plaintiff is a high school (and college) graduate who is able to communicate in English. Id. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has no transferable work skills. Id. Considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. Id. Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time between October 21, 2014, the date she alleged she became disabled, and the date of his decision. Id. at 29.

III. STEPS TO EVALUATE ENTITLEMENT TO SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS

An ALJ must proceed through the required sequential steps for evaluating entitlement to Social Security benefits. These steps are:

1. 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) and 416.920(b) (1992));
2. An individual who does not have a "severe impairment" will not be found to be "disabled" (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c) (1992));
3. If an individual is not working and is suffering from a severe impairment which meets the duration requirement, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509 and416.909 (1992), and which meets or is equivalent to a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, a finding of disabled will be made without consideration of vocational factors (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d) and 416.920(d) (1992));
4. If an individual is capable of performing the kind of work he or she has done in the past, a finding of "not disabled" must be made (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) and 416.920(e) (1992));
5. If an individual's impairment is so severe as to preclude the performance of the kind of work he or she has done in the past, 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) and 416.920(f) (1992)).

Hogg v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 328, 332 (6th Cir. 1992). The plaintiff has the burden to go forward with the evidence in the first four steps and the Commissioner has the burden in the fifth step. Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 529 (6th Cir. 1997); Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1181 (6th Cir. 1990).

IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under the Social Security Act, the ALJ weighs the evidence, resolves any conflicts, and makes a determination of disability. This Court's review of such a determination is limited in scope by § 205 of the Act, which states that the "findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Therefore, this Court's scope of review is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the findings of the Commissioner and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 922 (6th Cir. 1990).

The substantial-evidence standard requires the Court to affirm the Commissioner's findings if they are supported by "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Cole v. Astrue, 661 F.3d 931, 937 (6th Cir. 2011) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal citation omitted)). Substantial evidence is defined as "more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance." Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007); see Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S. Ct. 1148, 1154, 203 L. Ed. 2d 504 (2019) ("[W]hatever the meaning of 'substantial' [is] in other contexts, the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high."). Accordingly, when substantial evidencesupports the ALJ's denial of benefits, that finding must be affirmed, even if a preponderance of the evidence exists in the record upon which the ALJ could have found plaintiff disabled. The substantial evidence standard creates a "'zone of choice' within which [an ALJ] can act without the fear of court interference." Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 773 (6th Cir. 2001). However, an ALJ's failure to follow agency rules and regulations "denotes a lack of substantial evidence, even where the conclusion of the ALJ may be justified based upon the record." Cole, 661 F.3d at 937 (citing Blakely v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 407 (6th Cir.2009)) (internal citations omitted). Therefore, even if an ALJ's decision is 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 plaintiff on the merits or deprives the plaintiff of a substantial right." Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007)).

V. LAW AND ANALYSIS

Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's decision of December 6, 2017, alleging that the ALJ erred: (1) by improperly weighing certain opinions; (2) by improperly applying the "grids" in a mechanical fashion and in failing to consider Plaintiff's significant additional vocational adversities; and (3) by improperly assessing Plaintiff's credibility, specifically by not considering her length work history....

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