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Stansberry v. Colvin

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

March 27, 2014

RICK E. STANSBERRY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

ORDER ON COMPLAINT FOR JUDICIAL REVIEW

SARAH EVANS BARKER, District Judge.

Plaintiff Rick E. Stansberry applied in April 2010 for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits (SSI) under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act, alleging that he has been disabled since October 1, 2004. An administrative law judge ("ALJ") held a hearing on August 19, 2011, at which Mr. Stansberry appeared and testified. On November 4, 2011, acting for the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, the ALJ found that Mr. Stansberry is not disabled. The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision on August 6, 2012, rendering the ALJ's decision for the Commissioner final. Mr. Stansberry timely filed this civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the Commissioner's decision.

Mr. Stansberry contends that the ALJ erred by failing to give controlling weight to the opinion of his treating physician that in an eight hour day, Mr. Stansberry could only consistently, without resting, stand less than twenty minutes, walk less than ten minutes, and carry less than ten pounds. As addressed below, the court finds that the ALJ's decision to discount the opinion of the treating physician is supported by substantial evidence in the record, and substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's findings. The Commissioner's decision is therefore AFFIRMED.

Standard for Proving Disability

To prove disability, a claimant must show that he 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); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (SSI benefits).[1] Mr. Stansberry is disabled if his impairments are of such severity that he is not able to perform the work he previously engaged in and, if based on his age, education, and work experience, he 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 he is, then he is not disabled, despite his current medical condition. Step two asks whether the claimant's impairments, singly or in combination, are severe; if they are not, then he 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. The impairment must also meet the twelve-month duration requirement. The Listing of Impairments includes medical conditions defined by criteria that the SSA has pre-determined are disabling, so that if a claimant meets all of the criteria for a listed impairment or presents medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the most similar listed impairment, then the claimant is presumptively disabled and qualifies for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

If the claimant's impairments do not satisfy a listing, then his 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 his impairment-related physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. At the fourth step, if the claimant has the RFC to perform his past relevant work, then he is not disabled. The fifth step asks whether there is work in the relevant economy that the claimant can perform, based on his age, work experience, education, and RFC; if so, then he 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. 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. 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). This court's role is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's (and ultimately the Commissioner's) findings. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004). A court must affirm if no error of law occurred and if the findings are supported by substantial evidence. 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).

In addition, the ALJ is required to articulate a minimal, but legitimate, justification for her decision to accept or reject specific evidence of a disability. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004). Moreover, the ALJ need not address every piece of evidence in her decision, but she cannot ignore a line of evidence that undermines the conclusions she made, and she must trace the path of her reasoning and connect the evidence to her findings and conclusions. Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 592 (7th Cir. 2012).

The ALJ's Sequential Findings

Mr. Stansberry testified he was born on December 11, 1961, and was 49 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision issued November 4, 2011. At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Stansberry had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2004, the alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ identified the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, right carpal tunnel syndrome, right subclavian mass, headaches, and depression. At step three, the ALJ evaluated Mr. Stansberry's severe impairments against the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404 and found that none was met, a finding Mr. Stansberry does not challenge.

For purposes of steps four and five, the ALJ adopted the following residual functional capacity (RFC)[2] to perform the full range of light work with the following limitations:

Occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; no climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolding; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling; only intermittent and no more than occasional exposure to slippery and uneven surfaces; no repetitive flexion and extension of the right wrist. Further, the claimant has the mental parameters and in the context of performing, simple, routine, repetitive, concrete, tangible tasks, the claimant is ...

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