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Nelson v. Colvin

United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division

August 7, 2014

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


Denise K. LaRue, United States Magistrate Judge

Plaintiff Randall Nelson applied for a declaration of a period of disability, an award of disability-insurance benefits, and an award of supplemental-security-income disability benefits. The defendant Commissioner of Social Security finally denied his applications and he filed this action for judicial review. The district judge referred the matter to this magistrate judge for submission of a report and recommendation under 28 U.S.C. § 636. Entry [doc. 9]. For the reasons explained below, this magistrate judge recommends that the Commissioner’s denial of benefits be affirmed.


Judicial review of the Commissioner's factual findings is deferential: courts must affirm if her findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Skarbek v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 500, 503 (7th Cir. 2004); Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, of the evidence. Wood v. Thompson, 246 F.3d 1026, 1029 (7th Cir. 2001). If the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that it adequately supports the Commissioner's decision, then it is substantial evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971); Carradine v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d 751, 758 (7th Cir. 2004). This limited scope of judicial review derives from the principle that Congress has designated the Commissioner, not the courts, to make disability determinations:

In reviewing the decision of the ALJ [administrative law judge], we cannot engage in our own analysis of whether [the claimant] is severely impaired as defined by the SSA regulations. Nor may we reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or, in general, substitute our own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Our task is limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.

Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Carradine, 360 F.3d at 758. While review of the Commissioner's factual findings is deferential, review of her legal conclusions is de novo. Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010).

The Social Security Act defines disability as the "inability 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 has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months". 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 905. A person will be determined to be disabled only if her impairments "are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The combined effect of all of an applicant's impairments shall be considered throughout the disability determination process. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(3)(G).

To be eligible for child insurance benefits, a claimant over the age of 18 must show that, at the time of filing his application, he was unmarried, he was dependent on an insured parent at the time of his or her death, and he was under a disability that began before the age of twenty-two and continued through the date of application. 42 U.S.C. § 402(d). In Mr. Davis's case, that means that he must show that he was under a disability from at least May 12, 2005 (day before his twenty-second birthday) through May 8, 2009 (date of application). Mr. Davis alleges that he became disabled in August 2001.

The Social Security Administration ("SSA") has implemented these statutory standards in part by prescribing a "five-step sequential evaluation process" for determining disability. If disability status can be determined at any step in the sequence, an application will not be reviewed further. At the first step, if the applicant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, then she is not disabled. At the second step, if the applicant's impairments are not severe, then she is not disabled. A severe impairment is one that "significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." Third, if the applicant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or medically equal the criteria of any of the conditions included in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, Appendix 1, then the applicant is deemed disabled. The Listing of Impairments are medical conditions defined by criteria that the SSA has pre-determined are disabling. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525. If the applicant's impairments do not satisfy a Listing, then her residual functional capacity ("RFC") will be determined for the purposes of the next two steps. RFC is an applicant's ability to do work on a regular and continuing basis despite his impairment-related physical and mental limitations and is categorized as sedentary, light, medium, or heavy. At the fourth step, if the applicant has the RFC to perform her past relevant work, then she is not disabled. Fifth, considering the applicant'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 that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 416.920(a)

The burden rests on the applicant to prove satisfaction of steps one through four. The burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to establish that there are jobs that the applicant can perform in the national economy. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004). If an applicant has only exertional limitations that allow her to perform the full range of work at her assigned RFC level, then the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 (the "grids"), may be used at step five to arrive at a disability determination. The grids are tables that correlate an applicant's age, work experience, education, and RFC with predetermined findings of disabled or not-disabled. If an applicant has non-exertional limitations or exertional limitations that limit the full range of employment opportunities at her assigned RFC level then the grids may not be used to determine disability at that level; a vocational expert must testify regarding the numbers of jobs existing in the economy for a person with the applicant's particular vocational and medical characteristics. Lee v. Sullivan, 988 F.2d 789, 793 (7th Cir. 1993). The grids result, however, may still be used as an advisory guideline in such cases.

An application for benefits, together with any evidence submitted by the applicant and obtained by the agency, undergoes initial review by a state-agency disability examiner and a physician or other medical specialist. If the application is denied, the applicant may request reconsideration review, which is conducted by different disability and medical experts. If denied again, the applicant may request a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ").[1] An applicant who is dissatisfied with the decision of the ALJ may request the SSA's Appeals Council to review the decision. If the Appeals Council either affirms or declines to review the decision, then the applicant may file an action in district court for judicial review. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). If the Appeals Council declines to review a decision, then the decision of the ALJ becomes the final decision of the Commissioner for judicial review.

Factual and procedural background

Mr. Nelson alleged a disability-onset date of June 2, 2007. He had filed previous application for DIB and SSI benefits in June 2007, which were denied by a previous ALJ on June 24, 2010. (Apparently Mr. Nelson did not pursue judicial review of those denials.) Because Mr. Nelson’s alleged current onset date is within the time period covered by the previous adjudications, the current ALJ construed Mr. Nelson to be making an implied request to reopen the previous determinations, in addition to making a new claim for benefits. The ALJ denied the request to reopen the SSI decision because it was not filed within the regulatory two-year window and she found no basis for reopening. The request was timely for the DIB decision, but the ALJ found that there no new and material evidence was submitted and no evidence of error or fraud in the processing of the earlier applications. Mr. Nelson does not challenge either ruling. The ALJ found that the relevant period for determining Mr. Nelson’s new applications commenced on June 25, 2010, the day after the previous ALJ’s denial of his previous applications.

Mr. Nelson’s applications were denied on initial and reconsideration administrative reviews. He requested and received a hearing before an ALJ in February 2012, during which he and a vocational expert testified. He was represented by present counsel at the hearing. The ALJ issued her denial decision in March 2012.

At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Nelson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 25, 2010.

At step two, she found that Mr. Nelson has severe impairments of mild lumbar spondylosis, lumber degenerative disc disease, mild cartilage space loss in left hip, varicose veins, hypertension, tobacco abuse, diabetes mellitus, obesity, mood disorder, seizure disorder, and a pain disorder associated with both psychological factors and a general medical condition. She found that non-severe conditions of gatroesophageal reflux disease, hyperdipidemia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, history of substance abuse, and seizure disorder.

At step three, the ALJ found that Mr. Nelson’s impairments, severe and non-severe, singly or in combination, neither meet nor equal any of the conditions in the listing of impairments. She examined listings 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint(s), due to any cause), 1.04 (disorders of the spine), 4.00 (cardiovascular system), 9.00 (endocrine disorders), 11.02 (convulsive epilepsy), 11.03 (non-convulsive epilepsy), and mental listings 12.04, 12.06, 12.07, and 12.09.

For steps four and five, the ALJ determined Mr. Nelson’s RFC. She found that he retained the capacity for sedentary work with additional exertional, postural, and environmental limitations. Mentally, she found that he was capable of understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple routine tasks; appropriately interact with co-workers, supervisors, and the general public; identify and avoid normal work-place hazards; and adapting to routine changes in the work place.

The ALJ found that Mr. Nelson’s credibility regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms to be poor, in part based on his testimonial demeanor:

The undersigned was able to observe the claimant while he testified, his demeanor, the way he answered questions and all of the factors that go into assessing a witness’ credibility. Considering these factors, the undersigned has found his credibility as a witness to be poor and his demeanor during the hearing consistent with the limitations established in his residual functional capacity.

(R. 38.)

At step four, the ALJ found that Mr. Nelson’s RFC prevented the performance of any of his past relevant work. At step five, relying on the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ found that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that a person with Mr. Nelson’s RFC ...

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