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Mullins v. Colvin

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

May 29, 2014

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



Plaintiff Rodney Mullins protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income with the Social Security Administration ("SSA") on August 18, 2009, alleging a disability onset date of July 30, 2009. His application was initially denied on October 9, 2009, and upon reconsideration on December 14, 2009. A hearing was held on August 25, 2011, in front of Administrative Law Judge Steven E. Davis (the "ALJ"), who determined that Mr. Mullins was not entitled to receive disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income. [Filing No. 12-2 at 14.] The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's "final decision" subject to judicial review. Mr. Mullins has filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), asking the Court to review his denial of benefits. [Filing No. 1.]


Mr. Mullins was forty-two years old as of his onset date. [Filing No. 11-5 at 2.] He has a high school education and previously worked as a general laborer. [Filing No. 11-2 at 15-19; Filing No. 11-6 at 4.] Mr. Mullins claims to have been disabled since July 30, 2009, because of a variety of physical impairments that will be discussed as necessary below.[1] [Filing No. 11-6 at 3.]

Using the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, the ALJ issued an opinion on October 21, 2011. [Filing No. 12-2 at 5-14.] The ALJ found as follows:

• At Step One of the analysis, the ALJ found that Mr. Mullins had not engaged in substantial gainful activity[2] after the alleged disability onset date. [Filing No. 12-2 at 7.]
• At Step Two, the ALJ found that Mr. Mullins suffered from the severe impairments of obesity and degenerative disk disease. [Filing No. 12-2 at 7.]
• At Step Three, the ALJ found that Mr. Mullins did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments. [Filing No. 12-2 at 8.] The ALJ concluded that Mr. Mullins had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to lift, carry, push, and pull ten pounds occasionally, to sit for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday, and to stand and walk for a total of two hours in an eight-hour workday. [Filing No. 12-2 at 9.] He also concluded that Mr. Mullins should be able to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) and § 416.967(a). [Filing No. 12-2 at 9.]
• At Step Four, the ALJ found that Mr. Mullins was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. [Filing No. 12-2 at 13.]
• At Step Five, the ALJ found that, considering Mr. Mullins' age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he can perform. [Filing No. 12-2 at 13.]

Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Mullins was not disabled. [Filing No. 12-2 at 14.] Mr. Mullins requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision, [Filing No. 11-2 at 10], but on May 14, 2013, the Council denied that request, [Filing No. 11-2 at 2-5]. That decision is the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review, and Mr. Mullins subsequently sought relief from this Court. [Filing No. 1.]


The Court's role in this action is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, "[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (quotation omitted). Because the ALJ "is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, " Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008), this Court must afford the ALJ's credibility determination "considerable deference, " overturning it only if it is "patently wrong, " Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits "is appropriate only where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion." Id. (citation omitted).

To evaluate a disability claim, an ALJ must use the following five-step inquiry:

(1) [is] the claimant... currently employed, (2) [does] the claimant ha[ve] a severe impairment, (3) [is] the claimant's impairment... one that the Commissioner considers conclusively disabling, (4) if the claimant does not have a conclusively disabling impairment, ... can [he] perform h[is] past relevant work, and (5) is the claimant... capable of performing any work in the national economy[?]

Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted). "An affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps Three and Five, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. A negative answer at any point, other than Step Three, ends the inquiry and leads to a determination that a claimant is not disabled." Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000). After Step Three, but before Step Four, the ALJ must determine a claimant's RFC by evaluating all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009). In doing so, the ALJ may not dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling. Id. The ALJ uses the RFC at Step Four to determine whether the claimant can perform his own past relevant work and if not, at Step Five to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e), (g). The burden of proof is on the claimant for Steps One through Four; only at Step Five does the burden shift to the Commissioner. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.


Mr. Mullins raises five mains arguments on appeal: first, that the ALJ improperly dismissed the opinion of his nurse practitioner contrary to SSR 06-03p, [Filing No. 17 at 10-12]; second, that the denial erroneously relies on Mr. Mullins' alleged noncompliance with his treatment recommendations, [Filing No. 17 at 13-15]; third, that the ALJ failed to properly analyze his severe pain and the medication he uses to treat it, [Filing No. 17 at 16-18]; fourth, that the ALJ erroneously ignored Mr. Mullins' need for a cane for walking, ...

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