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Willett v. Colvin

United States District Court, Northern District of Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

September 2, 2014

CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



The Plaintiff, William M. Willett, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his application for disability benefits. The Court has jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


The Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits on January 5, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of December 5, 2009. The Plaintiff complained to the Disability Determination Bureau (DDB) that “breathing is a very hard process, because my lungs are not functioning properly.” (R. at 157.) The DDB denied the Plaintiff’s claim, finding that he could perform other work. The Plaintiff’s request for reconsideration was denied, and he then requested, and was granted, an administrative hearing. At the time of his hearing, on June 22, 2011, the Plaintiff was 41 years old.

Judge Dennis R. Kramer heard testimony from the Plaintiff, Dr. James M. McKenna, and a vocational expert. Using the agency’s standard sequential five-step analysis, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920, the ALJ issued a decision unfavorable to the Plaintiff. The ALJ found that the Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful employment during the first and second quarters of 2010. The ALJ proceeded to the next steps to address the periods the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment. At step two, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff’s emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis, asthma, and coronary artery disease were impairments that caused more than minimal limitations in his ability to perform basic work activities. As such, they were severe impairments. The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff’s medically determinable mental impairment of anxiety was not severe.

Step three requires the ALJ to “consider the medical severity of [the] impairment” to determine whether the impairment “meets or equals one of [the] listings in” appendix 1.20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant’s impairment rises to this level, he earns a presumption of disability “without considering [his] age, education, and work experience.” Id. at § 404.1520(d). But if the impairment falls short, an ALJ must examine the claimant’s “residual functional capacity”—the types of things he can still do physically despite his limitations—to determine whether he can perform this “past relevant work, ” id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), or, failing that, whether the claimant can “make an adjustment to other work” given his “age, education, and work experience, ” id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff’s impairment did not meet or equal any of the listings in appendix 1.

The ALJ described the Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (RFC) as lifting or carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, standing/walking 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, and sitting 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. The ALJ found that the Plaintiff’s ability to push and pull was unlimited except for lifting and carrying. The Plaintiff could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, but could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The Plaintiff had to avoid even moderate exposure to extreme cold and fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation, and had to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat, wetness, and humidity. The ALJ determined that, considering the Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, he could perform the requirements of light, unskilled, occupations, such as cashier, office helper, and sales attendant, thus defeating his disability claim at step five.

On December 17, 2012, the Appeals Council of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review denied the Plaintiff’s request for review, making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Getch v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 473, 480 (7th Cir. 2008); Fast v. Barnhart, 397 F.3d 468, 470 (7th Cir. 2005).

On February 14, 2013, the Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner’s decision. The matter has been fully briefed.


In an appeal from the denial of social security benefits, the court is not free to replace the ALJ’s appraisal of the medical evidence with its own. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009) (stating that the court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ). Instead, the court reviews the ALJ’s decision for substantial evidence, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), meaning that the court ensures that the decision rests on “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). When an ALJ recommends that the agency deny benefits, it must first “build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000). “In other words, as with any well-reasoned decision, the ALJ must rest its denial of benefits on adequate evidence contained in the record and must explain why contrary evidence does not persuade.” Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008). Where conflicting evidence would allow reasonable minds to differ as to whether the claimant is disabled, it is the ALJ’s responsibility to resolve those conflicts. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, (7th Cir. 2008). Conclusions of law are not entitled to such deference, however, so where the ALJ commits an error of law, the court must reverse the decision regardless of the volume of evidence supporting the factual findings. Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 841 (7th Cir. 2007).


The Plaintiff claims he is disabled and cannot work due to emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, asthma, and coronary artery disease.

The Plaintiff’s argument to this Court is that the ALJ committed error as he considered the weight to assign to medical opinions, improperly assessed the credibility of the Plaintiff with regard to exertional demands, and did not fashion an RFC to accommodate the Plaintiff’s pulmonary exacerbations. Additionally, the Plaintiff claims ...

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