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Williams v. Colvin

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

March 31, 2014

KARNISHA M. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, 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") finding Plaintiff Karnisha Williams not entitled to disability benefits under the Social Security Act. Ms. Williams initially applied for benefits in September 2005, alleging that she became disabled on March 31, 1981 as a result of mental retardation and low-back pain. Ms. Williams's application was denied in 2008. Ms. Williams sought judicial review of that decision and, in June 2010, this Court reversed the Commissioner's denial and remanded the case for re-evaluation. Williams v. Astrue, No. 1:08-cv-1353-JMS-TAB, Entry [doc. 33] (S.D. Ind. June, 29, 2010). On remand, the Commissioner again finally denied Ms. Williams's in September 2012. Ms. Williams now seeks judicial review of that denial in this suit. This case was referred to Magistrate Judge LaRue for consideration. On February 26, 2014, Magistrate Judge LaRue issued a report and recommendation that the Commissioner's decision be upheld because it was supported by substantial evidence and was otherwise in accord with the law. This cause is now before the Court on Plaintiff's Objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation.

I. Applicable Law and Standard of Review

To be eligible for benefits, 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 as to 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. Discussion

Ms. Williams objects to the Report and Recommendation on three grounds. First, she contends that the Magistrate Judge erred in affirming the ALJ's finding that the evidence did not prove her mental retardation met the requirements of the introductory paragraph of Listing 12.05. Second, Ms. Williams challenges the Magistrate Judge's recommendation that the Court uphold the ALJ's credibility finding. Finally, she argues that the Magistrate Judge wrongly affirmed the ALJ's Step Five determination that Ms. Williams could perform some jobs in the national economy. We address these arguments in turn.

A. The ALJ's Step Three Determination that Plaintiff's Combined Impairments Did Not Meet or Medically Equal Any Listed Impairment

Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge's conclusion that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's finding that Ms. Williams's disability did meet the criteria for Disability Listing 12.05. We agree with the Magistrate Judge that Plaintiff's challenges to the ALJ decision in this respect are without merit.

Listing 12.05 sets forth the criteria necessary to establish that a claimant suffers per se disability because of "intellectual disability."[1] The listing consists of two parts: first, an opening "diagnostic description" setting the general contours of the disability type; second, a list of four means by which a claimant may demonstrate that his or her impairments ...


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