United States District Court, N.D. Indiana
OPINION AND ORDER
THERESA L. SPRINGMANN, District Judge.
The Plaintiff, Jennifer Schultz, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the Commissioner's decision to deny her disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. On August 28, 2013, the Plaintiff wrote a Letter [ECF No. 16]. On November 5, the Court created a text entry on the docket advising that the Letter was, pursuant to the Plaintiff's confirmed intentions, her opening brief. In the Letter, the Plaintiff appears to be responding to a claim that she has not exhausted her administrative remedies. The Plaintiff provides the date that the Social Security Administration appeals council denied her request for review, and maintains that this Court may review her claims. The Plaintiff's Letter does not address the merits of her Complaint. The Defendant has filed a Memorandum in Support of Commissioner's Decision [ECF No. 21].
STANDARD OF REVIEW
This Court has the "power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Id. Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Liskowitz v. Astrue, 559 F.3d 736, 739 (7th Cir. 2009). The standard of review is deferential, and the court may not make independent credibility determinations or reconsider facts and evidence. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). Even if reasonable minds may differ as to whether the plaintiff is disabled, the court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 978 (7th Cir. 1996). However, conclusions of law are not entitled to such deference, and, if the ALJ commits an error of law, the decision must be reversed. Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 841 (7th Cir. 2007).
To be eligible for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423, and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act, §§ 1382, 1382c, 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. §§ 432(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration uses a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled:
1) is the plaintiff currently unemployed;
2) does the plaintiff have a severe impairment;
3) does the plaintiff have an impairment that meets or equals one of the impairments listed as disabling in the Commissioner's regulations;
4) is the plaintiff unable to perform his past relevant work; and
5) is the plaintiff unable to perform any other work in the national economy? 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 512-13 (7th Cir. 2009); Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351-52 (7th Cir. 2005). An affirmative answer leads either to the next step or, on steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; Briscoe, 425 F.3d at 352; Stein v. Sullivan, 892 F.2d 43, 44 (7th Cir. 1990). A negative answer at any point, other than step 3, stops the inquiry and leads to a determination that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Stein, 892 F.2d at 44. The claimant bears the burden of proof through step four; if it is met, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Briscoe, 425 F.3d at 352.
At the first step of the analysis, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of her disability. Proceeding to the next step, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's severe impairments were degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, deep venous thrombosis, factor V, and obesity. In her Complaint, the Plaintiff asserts that she also has depression and possibly ADHD, which impacts her concentration. The ALJ specifically addressed the impact of the Plaintiff's depression. He stated that, upon considering the four broad functional areas set out in the disability regulations for evaluating mental disorders, the Plaintiff's medically determinable mental impairment of major depressive disorder was not severe because it did not cause more than minimal limitations in her ability to perform basic mental work activities. The ALJ provided details and examples, i.e., substantial evidence, of the Plaintiff's actual functioning in the four areas: daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence or pace; and episodes of decompensation. The Plaintiff has not pointed to any evidence that the ALJ overlooked or ignored in making this assessment, and the Court finds that it is supported by substantial evidence.
The ALJ also accounted for the Plaintiff's own statements regarding her functioning, but noted that the limitations the Plaintiff described to the consultative examiner were not supported by her testimony to the ALJ, the third party functional report prepared by her mother, or the consultative examiner's diagnosis. Thus, in deciding not to fully credit the Plaintiff, the ALJ articulated his reasoning based on evidence from the record. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 477 (7th Cir. 2009); see also Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008) (a reviewing court does not undertake a de novo review of medical evidence that was presented to the ALJ when assessing a credibility determination, but merely examines "whether the ALJ's determination was reasoned and supported").
The ALJ properly noted that the opinion from the Plaintiff's treating doctor, Dr. John Kelly, was not entitled to controlling weight to the extent it was not a medical opinion, but an administrative finding dispositive of the case. Because the opinion was on an issue reserved to the Commissioner, it had to be carefully considered to determine the extent it was supported by the record as a whole or contradicted with persuasive evidence. (R. at 18-19, ECF No. 13 at 23-24) (citing 20 C.F.R. 404.1527(d)(2) and SSR 96-5p).) The ALJ noted that Dr. Kelly's own record was conflicting on the facts and diagnosis, and that he provided no evidence or reasoning to support his conclusion that the Plaintiff could not work. In contrast, the Department of Disability Services doctor, after reviewing the record, opined that the Plaintiff had no severe mental impairments. The ALJ gave great weight to the State agency doctor's opinion, as it was consistent with the record as whole. The Plaintiff has not identified any error in the ALJ's approach, or his ultimate conclusion regarding the weight to assign the physicians' opinions. See, e.g., Hofslien v. Barnhart, 439 F.3d 375 (7th Cir. 2006) (holding that the weight to be given to testimony or other evidence of a treating physician depends on circumstances and that treating physician's opinion does not carry a presumption of correctness where evidence opposing it is introduced); see also Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1178 (7th Cir. 2001) ("When treating and consulting physicians present conflicting evidence, the ALJ may decide whom to believe, so long as substantial evidence ...