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Rodgers v. Colvin

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

September 30, 2014

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


RICHARD L. YOUNG, Chief District Judge.

Ondrea G. Rodgers seeks judicial review of the final decision of the defendant, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying her applications for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") determined that despite Ms. Rodgers's severe physical impairments, she did not qualify as disabled under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). See 42 U.S.C §§ 416(i), 423(d), and 1382c(a)(3)(A). The court referred the case to Magistrate Judge Baker for consideration pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The Magistrate Judge recommended that the court reverse the Commissioner's determination and remand to the ALJ for further proceedings. The Commissioner now objects to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation, arguing that the ALJ properly denied Rodgers's applications for DIB and SSI. For the reasons set forth below, the court ADOPTS IN PART and REJECTS IN PART the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation.

I. Background

In April 2007, Rodgers filed an application for DIB, alleging disability due to severe arterial arthritis in her knees and ankles, high blood pressure, and anemia. (R. at 289). The Commissioner denied her application initially and again upon reconsideration. (R. at 120, 125). Rodgers requested a hearing before an ALJ who, in February 2010, determined that she was not disabled under Sections 416(i) and 423(d) of the Act. (R. at 92-105).

After requesting review of the ALJ's decision, Rodgers filed new applications for DIB and SSI in March 2010. (R. at 255-66). The Commissioner likewise denied the March 2010 applications initially and upon reconsideration, and Rodgers requested another hearing before the ALJ. (R. at 160-76). On July 8, 2011, the Appeals Council of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review vacated the ALJ's February 2010 decision and remanded the case for another hearing. (R. at 115). The Appeals Council ordered the ALJ to associate the April 2007 application with the March 2010 applications and issue a new decision. (R. at 115-18).

On January 27, 2012, the ALJ presided over a second hearing where Rodgers appeared with counsel and testified. Richard A. Hutson, M.D., a board-certified orthopedist, testified as a medical expert. Constance R. Brown, an impartial vocational expert, also provided testimony. (R. at 12). On March 5, 2012, the ALJ again determined that Rodgers did not qualify as "disabled" under Sections 416(i), 423(d), or 1382c(a)(3)(A) of the Act. (R. at 27). The Appeals Council denied Rodgers's request for review of the ALJ's decision (R. at 1), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.955(a), 404.981.

The ALJ made the following findings: (1) Rodgers meets the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2012 (R. at 16); (2) Rodgers has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 30, 2007, the alleged onset date (R. at 16); (3) Rodgers's severe impairments include degenerative joint disease in the right knee and left ankle, as well as mild obesity (R. at 16); (4) none of these impairments or combination thereof meets or medically equals the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (R. at 19); (5) Rodgers retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the following: lift and carry up to 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; sit for a total of approximately six hours in an eighthour work day; stand-walk in combination for a total of approximately two hours in a work day; and occasionally perform postural activities such as balancing, bending, kneeling, crouching, and crawling (R. at 26); (6) Rodgers has the capability of performing past relevant work as a receptionist or phone canvasser, as these positions generally would not require Rodgers to perform activities precluded by her RFC (R. at 26-27); and (7) Rodgers has not been under a disability as defined in the Act. (R. at 27).

On April 11, 2013, Rodgers filed a complaint in this court for review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). She made the following principal objections to the ALJ's decision: (1) substantial evidence fails to support the ALJ's finding that Rodgers's severe impairments do not meet or equal Listing 1.02(A)[1]; (2) the ALJ's credibility determination runs contrary to Social Security Ruling 96-7p; and (3) substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's determination that Rodgers is not disabled because she could perform her past jobs as a receptionist or telephone canvasser. (Filing No. 22).

On August 5, 2014, the Magistrate Judge submitted a Report and Recommendation in this case, recommending that the court reverse and remand the case to the ALJ for further proceedings. (Filing No. 38). The Magistrate concluded that the ALJ (1) overlooked certain important evidence, (2) misstated evidence, (3) improperly used boilerplate language, and (4) erred in assessing Rodgers's credibility. ( Id. ). The Commissioner objects to the Report and Recommendation, arguing that substantial evidence does support the ALJ's determination and that Rodgers has failed to show that any alleged error was harmful. (Filing No. 39).

II. Standards of Review

A. ALJ Decision

When an Appeals Council denies review as it did in this case, the ALJ's decision constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court has jurisdiction to review the decision of the ALJ. The ALJ's findings of fact are conclusive so long as substantial evidence supports them and no error of law occurred. Id. "Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). Although the court considers the entire administrative record, it will not "reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner." Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). But "an ALJ must consider all relevant evidence and cannot simply cherry-pick facts that support a finding of nondisability while ignoring evidence that points to a disability finding." Denton v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th Cir. 2010). The ALJ "need not mention every piece of evidence so long as he builds a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion." Id. (citation omitted). In other words, the court confines its scope of review to the ALJ's rationale. Tumminaro v. Astrue, 671 F.3d 629, 632 (7th Cir. 2011) (citing SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 93-95, 63 S.Ct. 454, 87 L.Ed. 626 (1943)).

B. Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation

When reviewing a magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation, "the district judge may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). The court may, in its discretion, elect to receive additional evidence or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions. Id. The court reviews de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition to which a party has properly objected. Id. However, when "no objection or only partial objection is made, the district court judge reviews those unobjected portions for clear error." Johnson v. Zema Sys. Corp., 170 ...

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