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Stanton v. Colvin

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

March 25, 2014

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



Plaintiff Rachel V. Stanton ("Ms. Stanton") requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Act. For the reasons set forth below, the Court AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner.


A. Procedural History

On June 23, 2010 Ms. Stanton protectively filed an application for SSI alleging a disability onset date of October 1, 2009. Ms. Stanton's application was denied initially on October 11, 2010, and upon reconsideration on December 20, 2010. After her request for reconsideration was denied, Ms. Stanton filed a written request for a hearing on February 24, 2011. A video hearing was scheduled for Ms. Stanton on October 27, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge Julia D. Gibbs (the "ALJ"). Ms. Stanton was represented by an attorney at the hearing. On November 10, 2011, the ALJ denied Ms. Stanton's application. On January 24, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Stanton's request for review of the ALJ's decision. The ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. Ms. Stanton filed this civil action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 405(g), for review of the ALJ's decision.

B. Factual Background

At the time of her alleged onset date of October 2009, Ms. Stanton was 30 years old and had a high school education. Prior to the alleged onset date of her disability, she had past relevant work as a cashier and a warehouse worker. Ms. Stanton lives with her mother. She alleges problems with depression, bipolar disorder, disc herniation, spondylosis, and shoulder pain. The ALJ found that Ms. Stanton had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 23, 2010, the date of her SSI application.

Ms. Stanton suffers from both mental and physical impairments. The record indicates that she has a history of problems with her back, including documentation of a July 2008 surgery to repair a herniated disc at the L4-5 level. R. at 218. She has had ongoing pain in her back since that time. Her medical records further reveal that Dr. Neil Zlatinski performed an MRI in March 2010, which showed a large disc herniation. R. at 249. On Dr. Zlatinski's recommendation, Ms. Stanton underwent an examination by Dr. Todd Eads ("Dr. Eads") who observed that she was suffering from progressive back pain. However, Dr. Eads also noted that she had not undergone much treatment for her back, so he recommended a conservative approach including physical therapy and Neurontin. R. at 28. After her evaluation by Dr. Eads in July 2010, Ms. Stanton's records reveal a gap in her medical treatment until she met with Dr. Kristen Davis ("Dr. Davis") in August 2011. R. at 29. Dr. Davis treated Ms. Stanton for depression, and noted some issues with Ms. Stanton's back, but did not provide any treatment for her back pain. Finally, Ms. Stanton underwent a consultative examination with Dr. Katherine Brooks, who assessed Ms. Stanton's range of motion, noted her complaints of pain, and reported that Ms. Stanton should "avoid significant bending, stooping, lifting, crouching, kneeling, or crawling." R. at 29.

In addition to her back pain, Ms. Stanton suffers from depression and bipolar disorder. She was initially diagnosed with depression by Dr. Terri Pellow ("Dr. Pellow") at Midtown Community Mental Health ("Midtown") in February 2010. R. at 226. Dr. Pellow later revised that diagnosis to bipolar disorder. R. at 234. Dr. Pellow's bipolar diagnosis was corroborated by Dr. Stephen Dunlop, one of Dr. Pellow's colleagues at Midtown. R. at 240. However, consultative examiner Dr. Mark Dobbs concluded that Ms. Stanton suffered from major depression due to her medical condition consisting of chronic back pain. R. at 264. He also gave Ms. Stanton a score of 49 on the global assessment of functioning, which indicated that she suffered from serious symptoms as a result of her mental impairments. R. at 266. During her treatment at Midtown for her mental health issues, she was prescribed medication to control her depression and bipolar disorder and attended group therapy sessions. However, she ceased treatment at Midtown in May 2010. In August 2011, Dr. Davis began prescribing Ms. Stanton medication to treat her depression.


Disability is defined 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 which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). In order to be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work, but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner employs a five-step sequential analysis. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled, despite her medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, if the claimant does not have a "severe" impairment (i.e. one that significantly limits her ability to perform basic work activities) that meets the durational requirement, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelve month duration requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). In order to determine steps four and five, the ALJ must determine the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"), which is the "maximum that a claimant can still do despite [her] mental and physical limitations." Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 675-76 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); SSR 96-8p). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At step five, if the claimant can perform any other work in the national economy, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).

In reviewing the ALJ's decision, this Court must uphold the ALJ's findings of fact if the findings are supported by substantial evidence and no error of law occurred. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). "Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. Further, this Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008). While the Court reviews the ALJ's decision deferentially, the Court cannot uphold an ALJ's decision if the decision "fails to mention highly pertinent evidence, ... or that because of contradictions or missing premises fails to build a logical bridge between the facts of the case and the outcome." Parker v. Astrue, 797 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted).

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). However, the "ALJ's decision must be based upon consideration of all the relevant evidence." Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3ed 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994). The ALJ is required to articulate only a minimal, but legitimate justification for her acceptance or ...

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