OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS
BERNARD A. FRIEDMAN, Senior District Judge.
This matter is presently before the Court on cross motions for summary judgment [docket entries 16 and 17]. Pursuant to E.D. Mich. LR 7.1(f)(2), the Court shall decide these motions without a hearing. For the reasons stated below, the Court shall grant plaintiff's motion, deny defendant's motion, and remand the case for further proceedings.
Plaintiff has brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to challenge defendant's final decision denying her application for Social Security disability insurance benefits. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing in August 2015 (Tr. 289-305) and issued a decision denying benefits in October 2015 (Tr. 278-85). This became defendant's final decision in November 2016 when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-4).
Under § 405(g), the issue before the Court is whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. As the Sixth Circuit has explained, the Court
Brooks v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 531 F. App'x 636, 640-41 (6th Cir. 2013).
Plaintiff was 53 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 294). She has some college education and work experience as a teacher's aide (Tr. 302). Plaintiff claims she has been disabled since November 1, 2012 (Tr. 370) due to bilateral knee arthritis, a pinched nerve in her lower back, and a degenerative disc disorder (Tr. 295, 370, 391). The ALJ found that between the alleged disability onset date and the date her insured status expired (June 30, 2013) plaintiff was not disabled under the act because "there were no medical signs or laboratory findings to substantiate the existence of a medically determinable impairment" (Tr. 283, 285).
Having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefs, the Court concludes that the administrative decision in this matter is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ improperly disposed of plaintiff's application at Step Two of the evaluation process. As this Court has explained,
Betty v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 15-CV-10734, 2016 WL 1105008, at *3 (E.D. Mich. Feb. 17, 2016), report and recommendation adopted, No. 15-CV-10734-DT, 2016 WL 1090554 (E.D. Mich. Mar. 21, 2016).
In the present case, the ALJ clearly erred in finding that "no medical signs or laboratory findings" support the existence of plaintiff's knee and back impairments prior to the expiration of her insured status in June 2013. An MRI of plaintiff's lumbar spine in December 2011 found significant abnormalities, including degenerative disc disease at L3-L4 and L4-L5; "radial disc tear and small posterolateral disc herniation towards the right" at L4-L5; moderate central spinal canal stenosis at L4-L5; and disc protrusion at L4-S1 "likely affecting the L5 nerve roots" (Tr. 457). The same month, an EMG and nerve conduction studies showed "evidence of an acute right L3 radiculopathy" (Tr. 447). A physician noted in November 2011 that plaintiff was having "quite a bit of pain in her knees" and that x-rays showed "rather severe osteoarthritis" (Tr. 443). The following month, another physician diagnosed "[p]an compartment osteoarthritis, bilateral knees" and noted that plaintiff had "back pain radiating down her feet" (Tr. 442). Plaintiff received Lidocaine injections in her knees in late 2011 and early 2012 (Tr. 438-42, 444). Under these circumstances, the ALJ plainly erred in characterizing plaintiff's back and knee impairments as "conditions [that] are not medically determinable" and denying her application "at step II of the evaluation process" (Tr. 284). It simply cannot be said that plaintiff's impairments are "slight" and have only a minimal effect on her ability to work. On remand, the ALJ must proceed past "Step Two" of the evaluation process.
On remand, the ALJ must also correct another error — namely, his failure to consider the effect, if any, of plaintiff's obesity on her other impairments. Plaintiff testified that she is 5'-6" tall and weighs "close to 300" (Tr. 294), which yields a body-mass index ("BMI") of 48.4. See
20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 1.00Q (emphasis added).
In the present case, there is no indication that the ALJ gave any consideration to plaintiff's obesity. At the hearing, the ALJ did not ask plaintiff if or how her weight affects her other impairments or her ability to work, and in his written decision the ALJ did not mention plaintiff's obesity at all. On remand, the ALJ must make specific findings as to the effect, if any, of plaintiff's obesity on her other impairments and on her ability to sit, stand, walk, or concentrate. The ALJ must include any such findings in evaluating plaintiff's residual functional capacity and, as appropriate, in framing proper hypothetical question(s) to a vocational expert.
For these reasons, the Court concludes that the ALJ's decision in this matter is not supported by substantial evidence. Remanding the matter for an award of benefits would not be appropriate at this time because the record, in its current state, is not such that "proof of disability is overwhelming or . . . proof of disability is strong and evidence to the contrary is lacking." Faucher v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 17 F.3d 171, 176 (6th Cir. 1994). Rather, the matter must be remanded so that the record may be further developed to correct the errors noted above. Accordingly,
IT IS ORDERED that defendant's motion for summary judgment is denied.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is granted and this matter is remanded for further proceedings as specified above. This is a sentence four remand under § 405(g).