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Treat v. Colvin

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

March 25, 2014

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



Teresa Treat 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.

For the reasons detailed below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

Administrative Proceedings

Ms. Treat applied for DIB on January 15, 2010, and alleged that her disability began on December 23, 2009. (R. 152). Her application was denied initially and after reconsideration, and an administrative hearing was held on May 12, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge Angela Miranda. She issued a decision on September 23, 2011, that Ms. Treat was not disabled at any time from her alleged onset date through the date of the administrative decision. She found that Ms. Treat was capable of a range of sedentary work and "[m]entally... has the capacity to understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine tasks." (R. 24). With this residual functional capacity and based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that a significant number of jobs were available to Ms. Treat as either a charge account clerk (DOT # 205.367-014) or eyeglass assembler (DOT # 713.687-026). The Appeals Council denied Ms. Treat's request for review on November 7, 2012, making the ALJ's disability determination the final decision of the Commissioner. O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2010). Ms. Treat 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 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, 988 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 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). We must give the Commissioner's (ALJ's) decision a commonsense reading while at the same time ensure that we can discern the path of her reasoning. See Diaz v. Chater, 50 F.3d 300, 307 (7th Cir. 1995) (ALJ's analysis must allow the court to "trace the path of his reasoning.").


Ms. Treat raises three issues. She contends that the ALJ erred by (a) failing to give appropriate weight to an opinion of her primary care physician regarding her functional abilities; (b) failing to evaluate her mental impairments properly; and (c) failing to determine that she is illiterate.

We will first summarize the ALJ's step five sequential findings and then address each of Ms. Treat's grounds for reversal and remand of the ...

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