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Mimms v. Colvin

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

August 11, 2014

JOSEPH T. MIMMS, Plaintiff,


Tim A. Baker United States Magistrate Judge

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Joseph Mimms appeals the Administrative Law Judge’s denial of his Social Security application for disability insurance benefits. Mimms’ alleged impairments include avascular necrosis in his hips, leading to the replacement of both hips, knee injuries, high blood pressure, diabetes, gout, carpal tunnel syndrome, and pain. [Filing No. 18, at ECF p. 2; Filing No. 15-6, at ECF p. 6.] Mimms raises three issues on appeal: (1) whether the Appeals Council committed an error of law because it failed to properly consider additional evidence from Mimms’ treating orthopedic surgeon, Dr. David Graybill; (2) whether the ALJ failed to give adequate weight to the opinions of Dr. Graybill; and (3) whether the ALJ’s credibility finding is patently wrong. [Filing No. 18, at ECF p. 1-2.] For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner’s decision is reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

II. Background

Mimms alleges he became disabled on September 14, 2009. On June 27, 2012, the ALJ held a hearing and found that Mimms’ impairments did not meet or equal listings 1.02, 1.03, 1.04, 14.06, or 14.09. [Filing No. 15-2, at ECF p. 22, 25-26.] However, the ALJ found that Mimms could not perform any relevant past work, and the ALJ limited Mimms to sedentary work with additional limitations. [Filing No. 15-2, at ECF p. 26-31.] The ALJ determined that Mimms was more disabled than the state agency medical consultants recommended based on the evidence from Mimms’ treating physicians. Nevertheless, the ALJ did not find all of Mimms’ complaints to be credible. Ultimately, the ALJ determined Mimms was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security regulations. [Filing No. 15-2, at ECF p. 33.]

On November 13, 2012, Mimms submitted an application for reconsideration to the Appeals Council. [Filing No. 15-2, at ECF p. 15-18.] In his application for reconsideration, Mimms included an April 9, 2012, chart note and a June 20, 2011, letter from Dr. Graybill documenting severe problems with Mimms’ hips and knees. Neither of these documents was part of the record for the ALJ. The Appeals Council denied review of Mimms’ case stating, “we considered the reasons you disagree with the decision stated in your Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order and the additional evidence listed on the enclosed Order of Appeals Council. . . . We found that this information does not provide a basis for changing the Administrative Law Judge’s decision.” [Filing No. 15-2, at ECF p. 2-3.] This appeal followed.

III. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

The Social Security regulations provide a five-step sequential inquiry to determine whether a plaintiff is disabled: whether the plaintiff (1) is not engaged in substantial gainful activity or employment, (2) has a severe impairment, (3) has an impairment that meets or equals one of the impairments listed as disabling in the Commissioner’s regulations, (4) is unable to perform his past relevant work, and (5) is 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). “An affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) (quoting Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir. 1985)). “A negative answer at any point, other than Step 3, ends the inquiry and leads to a determination that a claimant is not disabled.” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

The Court must uphold the ALJ’s decision if substantial evidence supports her findings. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009). “Although a mere scintilla of proof will not suffice to uphold an ALJ’s findings, the substantial evidence standard requires no more than such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Blakes v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 565, 568 (7th Cir. 2003). The ALJ is obligated to consider all relevant medical evidence and cannot simply cherry-pick facts that support a finding of non-disability while ignoring evidence that points to a disability finding. Denton v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th Cir. 2010). The ALJ, however, need not mention every piece of evidence, so long as she builds a logical bridge from the evidence to her conclusion. Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 362 (7th Cir. 2013).

B. Appeals Council Determination

Mimms argues that the Appeals Council committed legal error by rejecting additional evidence from Mimms’ treating physician, Dr. Graybill. Mimms’ additional evidence includes a June 20, 2011, letter [Filing No. 15-12, at ECF p. 61-62] and an April 9, 2012, chart note. [Filing No. 15-12, at ECF p. 57-58.] Mimms contends that this evidence would change the ALJ’s RFC determination. In rejecting this evidence, Mimms asserts that the Appeals Council erroneously used boilerplate language. [Filing No. 18, at ECF p. 17.] Accordingly, the Court should review the additional evidence de novo under Farrell v. Astrue, 692 F.3d 767 (7th Cir. 2012).

The Commissioner contends that de novo review is not required because the Appeals Council considered Mimms’ post-decision evidence as new and material. However, the Appeals Council denied his appeal in accordance with the Social Security Administration’s Hearings, Appeals and Litigation Law Manual (HALLEX). [Filing No. 27, at ECF p. 11.] Even if the Appeals Council erred in considering Mimms’ additional evidence, the Commissioner argues that any error is harmless, and the denial of Mimms’ appeal should be affirmed.

The issue of whether an ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence is distinct from whether the Appeals Council properly rejected an appeal. Farrell, 692 F.3d at 770-71. To review additional evidence, the Appeals ...

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