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Holcomb v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

September 30, 2014

JOHN K. HOLCOMB, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



The Plaintiff, John K. Holcomb, 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 October 14, 2009, originally alleging a disability onset date of April 15, 2007, but later amending his claim to allege an onset date of October 14, 2009. The claim was denied initially on January 27, 2010, and upon reconsideration on August 16, 2010. The Plaintiff then requested, and was granted, an administrative hearing. At the time of his hearing, on June 21, 2011, the Plaintiff was 49 years old.

Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Mario Silva heard testimony from the Plaintiff; Lori Lalone, the Plaintiff's girlfriend; and Richard Fisher, 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. At step one, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 14, 2009, the application date. At step two, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's obesity, coronary artery disease, diabetes without complication, obstructive sleep apnea, asthma, moderate depression, panic disorder without agoraphobia, and left shoulder rotator cuff tendonitis 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 impairments of hypertension and carpal tunnel syndrome were 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, and sitting/standing/walking 6 hours a day for a combined total of 8 hours per day with normal breaks. 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 no limits in reaching with his right dominant extremity, but could only occasionally fully extend his left nondominant extremity forward and to the sides. The Plaintiff could never extend his left extremity for overhead reaching, but could frequently engage in gross manipulation with both his right and left extremities. He could occasionally engage in fine manipulation with his left nondominant extremity, and could frequently engage in fine manipulation with his right extremity. The Plaintiff had to avoid even moderate exposure to extreme cold and fumes, odors, dusts, and gases, and to dangerous moving machinery and unprotected heights. The ALJ determined that he must be able to work at a flexible pace, was limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, and was unable to perform work directing others, abstract thought, and planning. The Plaintiff was limited to superficial and no direct interaction with the public and only occasional interaction with coworkers, but with no tandem tasks. 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 marker, routing clerk, and mail clerk, thus defeating his disability claim at step five.

On September 11, 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 November 7, 2012, 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 post traumatic arthritis of the left shoulder, knee with replacement, sleep apnea with daytime sleepiness, depression with panic disorder and agoraphobia, diabetes mellitus with peripheral neuropathy, coronary artery disease, and obesity.

The Plaintiff's argument to this Court is that the ALJ impermissibly substituted his own medical opinion when he considered the Plaintiff's sleep apnea and determined that the Plaintiff was noncompliant with his use of the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. The Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to analyze the effects of his obesity combined with his sleep apnea and ...

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