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Kirk v. Colvin

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

March 5, 2014

ROBIN KIRK, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security, Administration, Defendant.

ORDER ON COMPLAINT FOR JUDICIAL REVIEW

SARAH EVANS BARKER, JUDGE

Plaintiff Robin Kirk applied on January 7, 2011, for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging that she has been disabled since October 1, 2010. An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on May 30, 2012, at which Ms. Kirk appeared and testified. On June 12, 2012, acting for the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, the ALJ denied Ms. Kirk’s claim, and found that she is not disabled. The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ’s decision on November 19, 2012, rendering the ALJ’s decision for the Commissioner final. Ms. Kirk timely filed this civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the Commissioner’s decision.

Ms. Kirk contends that the ALJ erred by failing to give controlling weight to the opinion of her treating physician and issued an opinion that was not supported by substantial evidence. As addressed below, the court finds that the ALJ’s decision to discount the opinion of the treating physician is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Accordingly, the Commissioner’s decision is REVERSED AND REMANDED.

Standard for Proving Disability

To prove disability, a claimant must show that she is unable 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 which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) (DIB benefits). Ms. Kirk is disabled if her impairments are of such severity that she is not able to perform the work she previously engaged in and, if based on her age, education, and work experience, she cannot engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) has implemented these statutory standards by, in part, prescribing a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

Step one asks if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if she is, then she is not disabled, despite her current medical condition. Step two asks whether the claimant’s impairments, singly or in combination, are severe; if they are not, 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). The third step is an analysis of whether the claimant’s impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or medically equal any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

If the claimant’s impairments do not satisfy a listing, then her residual functional capacity (RFC) is determined for purposes of steps four and five. RFC is a claimant’s ability to do work on a regular and continuing basis despite her impairment-related physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. At the fourth step, if the claimant has the RFC to perform her past relevant work, then she is not disabled. The fifth step asks whether there is work in the relevant economy that the claimant can perform, based on her age, work experience, education, and RFC; if so, then she is not disabled.

The individual claiming disability bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). If the claimant meets that burden, then the Commissioner has the burden at step five to show that work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, given her age, education, work experience, and functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2); Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004).

Standard for Review of the ALJ’s Decision

Judicial review of the Commissioner’s (or ALJ’s) factual findings is narrow and deferential. They must be upheld “so long as substantial evidence supports them and no error of law occurred.” Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence means evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id. The standard demands more than a scintilla of evidentiary support, but does not demand a preponderance of the evidence. Wood v. Thompson, 246 F.3d 1026, 1029 (7th Cir. 2001). The court will “conduct a critical review of the evidence, ” considering both the evidence that supports, as well as the evidence that detracts from, the Commissioner's decision, and “the decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues.” Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). The ALJ “need not evaluate in writing every piece of testimony and evidence submitted, ” Carlson v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 180, 181 (7th Cir. 1993), but the ALJ must consider “all the relevant evidence.” Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994). The ALJ is required to articulate a minimal, but legitimate, justification for his decision to accept or reject specific evidence of a disability. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004). In addition, he must “build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [his] conclusion.” Dixon, 270 F.3d at 1176.

Analysis

Ms. Kirk’s treating physician, Dr. Robert C. Cater, provided an opinion regarding Ms. Kirk’s functional capacity that, if credited and given controlling weight, dictated a finding that Ms. Kirk was disabled – at least as of the date of Dr. Cater’s opinion. The ALJ rejected Dr. Cater’s opinion on the ground that it was not supported by the medical evidence. Ms. Kirk contends that the ALJ’s explanation regarding the lack of medical support for Dr. Cater’s opinion is itself not supported by substantial medical evidence. To address Ms. Kirk’s assertions, the court will first summarize the medical evidence relied on by the ALJ.

A. The ALJ’s Sequential Findings

Ms. Kirk was born in 1959 and was 51 years old as of the alleged onset of her disability in 2010. She had dropped out of high school after the eleventh grade to take a job that paid “good money.” (R. 54). She had a lengthy work history ...


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