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Warren v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

March 24, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant

For KATHLEEN A. WARREN, Plaintiff: J. Frank Hanley, II, Indianapolis, IN.

For CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant: Thomas E. Kieper, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Indianapolis, IN.


Page 1209

SARAH EVANS BARKER, United States District Judge.


Kathleen A. Warren seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (" Commissioner" ) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act.

Page 1210

As addressed in this Order, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision must be REVERSED and REMANDED.

Administrative Proceedings

Ms. Warren applied for DIB on January 23, 2006, and alleged that her disability began on February 1, 2005, due to " fibromyalgia, high cholesterol, depression, and anxiety." (R. 150, 179). She was last insured for DIB on December 31, 2010, and must have become disabled by that date to be eligible for benefits. Her application was denied initially and after reconsideration, and an administrative hearing was held on February 4, 2009, before Administrative Law Judge James R. Norris. He issued a decision that Ms. Warren was not disabled because she could perform her past relevant work (R. 89-105), but the Appeals Council remanded and directed the ALJ to consider several issues that were not addressed or were insufficiently explained in his decision. (R. 66-68). ALJ Norris conducted a second hearing on April 19, 2011, at which Ms. Warren, two medical experts, and a vocational expert testified. On August 12, 2011, the ALJ issued his decision finding that Ms. Warren was not disabled as of her date last insured because there were a significant number of jobs available consistent with her functional capacity. The Appeals Council denied Ms. Warren's request for review on October 9, 2012, making the ALJ's August 12, 2011 disability determination the final decision of the Commissioner. O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2010). Ms. Warren timely filed this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

Applicable Standards

To be eligible for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must prove she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a 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). There must be medical evidence of an impairment that results " from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques," and disability may not be adjudged only by a claimant's description of her symptoms. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.

The Social Security Administration has prescribed a " five-step sequential evaluation process" for determining disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The first step inquires whether the claimant is engaged in substantially gainful activity. If she is not, the second step inquires whether the claimant suffers from any severe impairment, which is an impairment that " significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If there is at least one severe impairment, then step three compares the claimant's impairments, singly or in combination, to medical conditions included in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, which are defined by criteria that the Administration has pre-determined are disabling. If the claimant's impairments meet or medically equal in severity the requirements of a listing, then the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

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

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her past relevant work, then she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If she cannot perform her past work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step, at which the claimant's age, work experience, education, and RFC are evaluated to determine whether she is capable of performing any other work available in the relevant economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, and at step five the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 352 (7th Cir. 2005).

The task a court faces in a case like this is not to attempt a de novo determination of the plaintiff's entitlement to benefits, but to decide if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and is otherwise free of legal error. Kendrick v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 455, 458 (7th Cir. 1993). " Substantial evidence" has been defined as " 'more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S.Ct. 206, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938)).

The ALJ's Findings

Ms. Warren was born in 1957 and was 53 years old as of her last insured date of December 31, 2010. In 1979, she earned degrees in Journalism and Business Administration from Butler University.

At step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Warren had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of February 1, 2005. Her part-time work at a department store from February 28, 2005, through July 8, 2005, had been classified by the SSA as an unsuccessful work attempt, and the ALJ found no evidentiary basis to disturb that conclusion. At step two, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Warren suffered from severe impairments of fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, and dependent personality disorder, ...

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