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Hart v. Colvin

United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division

February 19, 2014

SHERRI HART, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

Denise K. LaRue United States Magistrate Judge Southern District of Indiana

Plaintiff Sherri Hart applied for disability benefits under the Social Security Act alleging that she became disabled on March 17, 2005 as a result of hypertension, arthritis, headaches, asthma, and depression. (R. 123, 130, 154.) The defendant Commissioner of Social Security denied her application and Ms. Hart seeks judicial review of that decision by way of this suit. The assigned district judge referred this Cause for preparation of a report and recommendation.

Standards

Judicial review of the Commissioner’s factual findings is deferential: courts must affirm if her findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Skarbek v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 500, 503 (7th Cir. 2004); Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, of the evidence. Wood v. Thompson, 246 F.3d 1026, 1029 (7th Cir. 2001). If the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that it adequately supports the Commissioner’s decision, then it is substantial evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971); Carradine v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d 751, 758 (7th Cir. 2004). This limited scope of judicial review derives from the principle that Congress has designated the Commissioner, not the courts, to make disability determinations:

In reviewing the decision of the ALJ [administrative law judge], we cannot engage in our own analysis of whether [the claimant] is severely impaired as defined by the SSA regulations. Nor may we reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or, in general, substitute our own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Our task is limited to determining whether the ALJ’s factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.

Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Carradine, 360 F.3d at 758. While review of the Commissioner’s factual findings is deferential, review of her legal conclusions is de novo. Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010).

The Social Security Act defines disability as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically-determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months”. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1) and 423(d)(1)(A). A person will be determined to be disabled only if his impairments “are of such severity that he is not only unable to do her previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The combined effect of all of an applicant’s impairments shall be considered throughout the disability determination process. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B).

The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) has implemented these statutory standards in part by prescribing a “five-step sequential evaluation process” for determining disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If disability status can be determined at any step in the sequence, an application will not be reviewed further. Id. At the first step, if the applicant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, then she is not disabled. At the second step, if the applicant’s impairments are not severe, then she is not disabled. A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant’s] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Third, if the applicant’s impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or medically equal the criteria of any of the conditions included in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, then the applicant is deemed disabled. The Listing of Impairments are medical conditions defined by criteria that the SSA has pre-determined are disabling. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525. If the applicant’s impairments do not satisfy a Listing, then her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) will be determined for the purposes of the next two steps. RFC is an applicant’s ability to do work on a regular and continuing basis despite his impairment-related physical and mental limitations and is categorized as sedentary, light, medium, or heavy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. At the fourth step, if the applicant has the RFC to perform his past relevant work, then she is not disabled. Fifth, considering the applicant’s age, work experience, and education (which are not considered at step four), and her RFC, she will not be determined to be disabled if she can perform any other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.

The burden rests on the applicant to prove satisfaction of steps one through four. The burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to establish that there are jobs that the applicant can perform in the national economy. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004). If an applicant has only exertional limitations that allow her to perform the full range of work at her assigned RFC level, then the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 (the “grids”), may be used at step five to arrive at a disability determination. The grids are tables that correlate an applicant’s age, work experience, education, and RFC with predetermined findings of disabled or not-disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569 and 1569a. If an applicant has non-exertional limitations or exertional limitations that limit the full range of employment opportunities at her assigned RFC level, then the grids may not be used to determine disability at that level; a vocational expert must testify regarding the numbers of jobs existing in the economy for a person with the applicant’s particular vocational and medical characteristics. Id.; Lee v. Sullivan, 988 F.2d 789, 793 (7th Cir. 1993). The grids result, however, may still be used as an advisory guideline in such cases. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1569.

An application for benefits, together with any evidence submitted by the applicant and obtained by the agency, undergoes initial review by a state-agency disability examiner and a physician or other medical specialist. If the application is denied, the applicant may request reconsideration review, which is conducted by different disability and medical experts. If denied again, the applicant may request a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”).[1] An applicant who is dissatisfied with the decision of the ALJ may request the SSA’s Appeals Council to review the decision. If the Appeals Council either affirms or declines to review the decision, then the applicant may file an action in district court for judicial review. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). If the Appeals Council declines to review a decision, then the decision of the ALJ becomes the final decision of the Commissioner for judicial review.

Background

Ms. Hart sought disability-insurance benefits, supplemental-security-income disability benefits, and a declaration of a period of disability. Her application was denied on initial and reconsideration reviews, (R. 62-73, 78-91), and an ALJ then conducted a hearing on her application, (R. 34). Ms. Hart was represented by current counsel at the hearing. At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Hart was not engaged in substantial gainful activity. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Hart has severe impairments of hypertension, asthma, obesity, back pain, depression, anxiety, and dysthmic disorder. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Ms. Hart’s impairments, severe or non-severe, alone or in combination, meets or medically equals any of the listed impairments. He found that no listing was satisfied. He also specifically articulated his evaluation of mental Listings 12.04 (affective disorders) and 12.06 (anxiety related disorders) and found neither satisfied.

For the purposes of steps four and five, the ALJ determined Ms. Hart’s RFC by evaluating the medical evidence and her alleged symptoms. He found that she retained the capacity to perform sedentary level of work with certain additional physical restrictions (e.g., climbing, posture, and environment) and the following mental restrictions: (1) simple, unskilled work; (2) no fast-paced production work; (3) contact with others is routine and superficial in nature; and (4) regular breaks approximately every two hours.

At step four, the ALJ found that Ms. Hart’s restricted RFC prevents the performance of any of her past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ called for the testimony of a vocational expert because Ms. Hart’s non-exertional limitations prevents the performance of the full range of sedentary work. The vocational expert testified that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that a person with Ms. Hart’s age, education, transferability of work skills, and defined RFC could perform. She specifically identified the job of “telephone information clerks, ” with 2, 500 positions in Indiana and 42, 000 nationally.[2] (R. 58.) Based on this testimony, and using, as a framework, the grid rule that directs a finding of not disabled, the ALJ found that Ms. Hart was not disabled through the date of his ...


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