United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division
LINDA F. GREEN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
ORDER OVERRULING PLAINTIFF'S OBJECTIONS TO THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
SARAH EVANS BARKER, District Judge.
This is an action for judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff Ms. Linda Green ("Ms. Green") Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d), & 1382c(a)(3). As discussed below, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found that even though Ms. Green had some severe impairments, she could still perform her past relevant work as a florist. R. at 16-18. This case was referred for consideration to Magistrate Judge Baker, who issued a Report and Recommendation that the Commissioner's decision be upheld. This cause is now before the Court on Plaintiff's Objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation. For the reasons detailed herein, we adopt the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation and affirm the Commissioner's decision.
I. Applicable Law and Standard of Review
To be eligible for DIB, 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). To establish disability, the plaintiff is required to present 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." Id. § 423(d)(3). A physical or mental impairment must be established by medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by a claimant's statement of symptoms." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.
The Social Security Administration 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 claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, then he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). At the second step, if the claimant's impairments are not severe, then he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c). A severe impairment is one that "significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." Id. Third, if the claimant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or 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 claimant is deemed disabled. The Listing of Impairments are medical conditions defined by criteria that the Administration has predetermined are disabling. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525. If the claimant's impairments do not satisfy a Listing, then her Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") will be determined for the purposes of the next two steps. A claimant's RFC is her 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 claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 352 (7th Cir. 2005).
At the fifth step, considering the claimant'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 in the relevant economy. The burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five to prove that there are jobs that exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id. For a claimant with purely exertional limitations, the Commissioner may use the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 (the "grids") to make a disability determination. The grids correlate the claimant's age, work experience, education, and RFC with a finding of "disabled" or "not-disabled." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569a. Exertional limitations are those which only affect a claimant's ability to meet the strength demands of jobs. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1569a(b). If a claimant has non-exertional limitations or exertional limitations that restrict the full range of employment opportunities at his RFC level, then the grids may not be used at this step. Instead, a vocational expert must testify regarding the number of existing jobs for a person with the claimant's particular medical conditions and vocational characteristics. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569a; Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 629 (7th Cir. 2005); Luna v. Shalala, 22 F.3d 687, 691 (7th Cir. 1994).
We review the Commissioner's denial of benefits to determine whether it was supported by substantial evidence or is the result of an error of law. Rice v. Barnhart, 384 F.3d 363, 368-369 (7th Cir. 2004); Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). "Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). In our review of the ALJ's decision, we will not "reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [our] own judgment for that of the Commissioner." Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539. However, the ALJ's decision must be based upon consideration of "all the relevant evidence, " without ignoring probative factors. Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994). In other words, the ALJ must "build an accurate and logical bridge" from the evidence in the record to his or her final conclusion. Dixon, 270 F.3d at 1176. We confine the scope of our review to the rationale offered by the ALJ. See SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 93-95 (1943); Tumminaro v. Astrue, 671 F.3d 629, 632 (7th Cir. 2011).
When a party raises specific objections to elements of a Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation, the district court reviews those elements de novo, determining for itself whether the Commissioner's decision regarding those issues is supported by substantial evidence or was the result of an error of law. Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 72(b). The district court "makes the ultimate decision to adopt, reject, or modify" the report and recommendation, and it need not accept any portion as binding; the court may, however, defer to those conclusions of the report and recommendation to which timely objections have not been raised by a party. See Schur v. L.A. Weight Loss Ctrs., Inc., 577 F.3d 752, 759-761 (7th Cir. 2009).
II. The ALJ's Decision
At the first step of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that there was insufficient evidence to determine whether Ms. Green had engaged in substantial gainful activity during the alleged period of disability. Specifically, the ALJ determined that the record did not establish what duties Ms. Green maintained as the owner of three flower shops during that time.
Despite this finding, the ALJ proceeded to the second step and found that Ms. Green suffered from the following severe impairments: Hashimoto's thyroiditis, plantar fasciitis, osteoarthritis, bursitis, obesity, and polyarthralgia. The ALJ did not consider Ms. Green's limitations as a result of her Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosis because there was no evidence of its existence or diagnosis prior to the date of last insured.
At the third step, the ALJ determined that Ms. Green did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the conditions in the Listing of Impairments.
In terms of the RFC, the ALJ found that Ms. Green had the capability to "perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b)." R. at 16. In coming to this conclusion, the ALJ engaged in a two-step process by which she determined that Ms. Green's impairments could indeed reasonably be expected to produce her symptoms but that her statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were not credible to the extent that they were inconsistent with the ALJ's RFC. In so finding, the ALJ stated that the record regarding Ms. Green's treatment prior to her date last insured, did not reflect her description of the extreme severity of her symptoms. With regard to her Hashimoto's thyroiditis and osteoarthritis, the ALJ noted that Ms. Green's physician, Dr. Stack, opined that her complaints could be dealt with through exercise. The ALJ also noted that Ms. Green did not receive any significant treatment for her plantar fasciitis diagnosis and that she told her physician in January, 2008 that she exercised as a hobby in spite of shoulder pain that she had experienced for several months. The ALJ noted that the medical evidence of record throughout 2008 did not support the extreme symptoms Ms. Green described at her hearing. Finally, the ALJ noted that Ms. Green had admitted that her headaches, which she sought treatment for after her date last insured, had "come under much better control" in 2009 and that examinations had been characterized as unremarkable. R. at 18.
Finally, the ALJ determined that based on Ms. Green's prior work history, her RFC, and the testimony of a vocational expert, Ms. Green was capable of performing her ...