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Sticht v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee

April 15, 2015

DOROTHY STICHT, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

ORDER REVERSING DECISION OF COMMISSIONER AND AWARDING BENEFITS

JAMES D. TODD, District Judge.

Plaintiff filed this action to obtain judicial review of Defendant Commissioner's final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act ("Act"). Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. On November 19, 2012, following a hearing, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") issued a fully favorable decision, finding that Plaintiff was under a disability as defined in the Act and entitled to benefits. However, on August 1, 2013, the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration issued its own decision, finding that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence and that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The Appeals Council's decision became the Commissioner's final decision.

Plaintiff then filed this action, requesting reversal of the Commissioner's decision. The Commissioner filed a motion to voluntarily remand the case for further proceedings. Plaintiff did not consent to the request for remand, and this court denied the Commissioner's motion on July 9, 2014. The parties have fully briefed the court. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED.

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a claimant may obtain judicial review of any final decision made by the Commissioner after a hearing to which he was a party. "The court shall have the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." Id. The court's review is limited to determining whether or not there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Drummond v. Commissioner, 126 F.3d 837, 840 (6th Cir. 1997), and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Landsaw v. Secretary, 803 F.2d 211, 213 (6th Cir. 1986). When the record contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision, the decision must be affirmed. Stanley v. Secretary, 39 F.3d 115, 117 (6th Cir. 1994) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). "Substantial evidence" is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229(1938)). When substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's determination, it is conclusive, even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion. Felisky v. Bowen, 35 F.3d 1027, 1035 (6th Cir. 1994).

A substantiality of evidence standard, however, does not permit a selective reading of the record. "Substantiality of the evidence must be based upon the record taken as a whole. Substantial evidence is not simply some evidence, or even a great deal of evidence. Rather, the substantiality of evidence must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 388 (6th Cir. 1984) (internal quotes and citations omitted). If a court determines that substantial evidence does not support the Commissioner's decision, the court can reverse the decision and immediately award benefits if all essential factual issues have been resolved and the record adequately establishes a plaintiff's entitlement to benefits. Faucher v. Secretary, 17 F.3d 171, 176 (6th Cir. 1994). A reviewing court must defer to findings of fact by an Appeals Council, if those findings are supported by substantial evidence, when those findings conflict with the factual findings of the ALJ. Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986).

In the present case, the Commissioner does not argue that the decision should be affirmed but, instead, again argues for a remand under sentence four for further development of the record. The court finds that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and that Plaintiff should be awarded benefits.

Plaintiff was born December 11, 1949. She graduated from high school. R. 45. She has past relevant work as a data entry clerk. R. 155, 157, 188. Plaintiff claims disability as a result of injuries from a vehicle accident on January 26, 2011, her alleged onset date. R. 28.

The ALJ enumerated the following findings: (1) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date; (2) Plaintiff has severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and thoracic regions, carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis of the fingers (proximal interphalangel joints), diabetes mellitus type 2 - uncontrolled with neuropathy, and uncontrolled hypertension; (3) Plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments do not meet or equal in severity any impairment listed in Appendix 1, Subpart Plaintiff, Regulations No. 4; (4) Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform a modified range of sedentary work; she is limited to occasional stooping, crouching, crawling, kneeling, and balancing, and no sustained handling, fingering, or feeling with either hand; (5) Plaintiff is not able to perform her past relevant work;[1] (6) Plaintiff is an individual with a high school education and is closely approaching retirement age; (7) Plaintiff's job skills do not transfer to other occupations within her residual functional capacity; (8) considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform; (9) Plaintiff has been under a "disability" as defined in the Act since her alleged onset date.

The Appeals Council disagreed with the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding and the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff was disabled. Specifically, the Appeals Council found that substantial evidence did not support the ALJ's limitation to no sustained handling, fingering, or feeling with either hand. Instead, the Appeals Council determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform a modified range of sedentary work, limited to occasional stooping, crouching, crawling, kneeling, and balancing, continuously reaching with both hands, occasionally handling, fingering, and feeling with both hands, and performing repetitive fine finger movements with both hands. According to the Appeals Council, Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a data entry clerk and was not disabled.

The Social Security Act defines disability as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). The claimant bears the ultimate burden of establishing an entitlement to benefits. Born v. Secretary, 923 F.2d 1168, 1173 (6th Cir. 1990). The initial burden of going forward is on the claimant to show that he is disabled from engaging in his former employment; the burden of going forward then shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate the existence of available employment compatible with the claimant's disability and background. Id.

The Commissioner conducts the following, five-step analysis to determine if an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Act:

1. An individual who is engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found to be disabled regardless of medical findings.
2. An individual who does not have a severe impairment will not be found to be disabled.
3. A finding of disability will be made without consideration of vocational factors, 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 ...

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