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Mitchell v. Colvin

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

October 31, 2014

LAURIE A. MITCHELL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

ENTRY REVIEWING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

JANE MAGNUS-STINSON, District Judge.

Plaintiff Laurie A. Mitchell applied for disability insurance benefits from the Social Security Administration ("SSA") on January 21, 2011. After a series of administrative proceedings and appeals, including a hearing in August 2012 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") T. Whitaker, the ALJ determined that Ms. Mitchell was not entitled to disability insurance benefits. In November 2013, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Mitchell's request for a review of the ALJ's decision, rendering that decision the final decision of the Defendant, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("the Commissioner"), for the purposes of judicial review. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Ms. Mitchell then filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), requesting that the Court review the Commissioner's denial.

I.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Court's role in this action is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, "[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (quotation omitted). Because the ALJ "is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, " Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008), this Court must afford the ALJ's credibility determination "considerable deference, " overturning it only if it is "patently wrong." Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

The ALJ must apply the five-step inquiry set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), evaluating the following, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently [un]employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the [Commissioner]; (4) whether the claimant can perform her past work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.

Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted) (alterations in original). "If a claimant satisfies steps one, two, and three, she will automatically be found disabled. If a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then she must satisfy step four. Once step four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy." Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).

After Step Three, but before Step Four, the ALJ must determine a claimant's RFC by evaluating all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009). In doing so, the ALJ may not dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling. Id. The ALJ uses the RFC at Step Four to determine whether the claimant can perform her own past relevant work and if not, at Step Five to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e), (g). The burden of proof is on the claimant for Steps One through Four; only at Step Five does the burden shift to the Commissioner. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits "is appropriate only where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion." Id. (citation omitted).

II.

BACKGROUND

Ms. Mitchell was forty-seven years old on the alleged onset date of her disability, July 27, 2010. [Filing No. 12-2 at 21.] She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in electrical engineering. [Filing No. 12-2 at 16.] Ms. Mitchell suffers from chronic left knee impairment and some pain in her right knee, neck, and shoulder area, [Filing No. 12-2 at 16.], which will be discussed as necessary below.[1] The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2015. [Filing No. 12-2 at 13.]

Using the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA, the ALJ issued an opinion on November 2, 2012. [Filing No. 12-2 at 11-24.] The ALJ found as follows:

• At Step One, the ALJ found that Ms. Mitchell did not engage in substantial gainful activity[2] during the period from July 27, 2010, the alleged onset date, through October 15, 2011. [Filing No. 12-2 at 13.]
• At Step Two, the ALJ found that Ms. Mitchell suffered from the following severe impairments: a history of acute flank, cervical and lower extremity contusions with hyperextension of the neck and shoulder strain secondary to fall, a right shoulder sprain/strain and exacerbation of hypertension secondary to cephalgia; osteoarthritis of the left knee status post arthroscopy and chondroplasty times two with resection of medial meniscus; chronic left knee patellofemoral pain syndrome, chondromalacia and maltracking of the patella; degenerative joint disease ...

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