United States District Court, N.D. Indiana
DEBRA L. BAILEY, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
RESA L. SPRINGMANN, District Judge.
The Plaintiff, Debra L. Bailey, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. The Plaintiff requested a hearing after her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. In May 2012, an administrative law judge (ALJ) held a hearing on the Plaintiff's application. On June 7, 2012, the ALJ issued a Decision finding that the Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits because she was not disabled under the relevant provisions of the Social Security Act. In July 2013, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. The Plaintiff then filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
In an appeal from the denial of social security benefits, the court is not free to replace the ALJ's estimate 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. Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997).
Disability is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work, but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Here, the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of September 1, 2009, and thus satisfied the step one inquiry. At step two, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity, osteoarthritis of the left knee, right ankle arthritis, and degenerative changes of the lumbar spine. 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"(RFC)-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 and combination of impairments did not meet or equal any of the listings in appendix 1, and that she had the RFC to perform less than the full range of sedentary work as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a). The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff could lift and/or carry and push and/or pull up to 10 pounds occasionally, and lesser weights frequently; sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday; and stand and/or walk for two hours in an eight-hour workday. She could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, but could occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, or crouch. The Plaintiff could never kneel or crawl. Additionally, the Plaintiff was to avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights, and wet uneven surfaces. Because a sufficient number of jobs existed in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform with her restriction to less than the full range of sedentary work, the ALJ denied her claim.
On appeal to this Court, the Plaintiff claims that the ALJ inadequately considered all of the Plaintiff's impairments, improperly assessed the credibility of the Plaintiff and the Plaintiff's sister, and erred by failing to include the need for a sit/stand option in the RFC, a restriction that would have rendered her unable to perform any jobs.
A. Combination of Impairments
The Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred at step two of the sequential analysis by failing to find that her arthritic changes of the feet, plantar fasciitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, depression, and insomnia were severe impairments. The Plaintiff asserts that if the proper assessment of her impairments had been made at step two, "a finding of disabled would ensue at Step Five." (Pl.'s Brief 10-11, ECF No. 20.) The Plaintiff also asserts that the ALJ failed to adequately consider the Plaintiff's obesity, particularly its impact on her knees, feet, and back.
An impairment "is not severe if it does not significantly limit [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). The burden is on the claimant to prove that the impairment is severe. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 885-86 (7th Cir. 2001). The Seventh Circuit has said that the step two requirement of severity is "merely a threshold requirement." Hickman v. Apfel, 187 F.3d 683, 688 (7th Cir. 1999); see also Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 927 (7th Cir. 2010) (same). The claimant must satisfy this preliminary step before the ALJ can consider whether any severe impairment meets a listing at step three and whether the entirety of her impairments prevent her from working at steps four and five. See Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 844 n.1 (7th Cir.2007).
As stated above, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had four severe impairments: obesity; osteoarthritis of the left knee; right ankle arthritis, and; degenerative changes of the lumbar spine. The ALJ also discussed the Plaintiff's chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, insomnia, depression, bilateral shoulder pain, stomach pain, and left foot problems, finding that they caused no more than a minimal limitation on her ability to engage in basic work activities and were thus not severe for purposes of his decision. The ALJ offered detailed findings to address each of these impairments. Substantial evidence, including physician treatment notes and recommendations, diagnostic test results, and responses to medications, supported the ALJ's findings, and the Plaintiff does not point to any evidence that the ALJ ignored or overlooked. The Court will not reweigh the evidence and substitute its judgment for the ALJ's. See Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 735 (7th Cir. 2006) ("We do not reweigh the evidence' in reviewing the ALJ's determination.") (quoting Sims v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 424, 428 (7th Cir. 2002)).
In any event, "this particular determination is of no consequence with respect to the outcome of the case. Because the ALJ recognized numerous other severe impairments, he was obligated to proceed with the evaluation process." Castile, 617 F.3d at 927. In step four of the evaluation, the ALJ discussed the Plaintiff's back pain, knee pain, right foot and ankle pain, and arthritis. Although the ALJ did not mention the Plaintiff's chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, depression, or insomnia, the Plaintiff has not indicated how these impairments impacted her ability to perform sedentary work. Indeed, she has not identified a single limitation arising from these impairments, either alone or in combination with her other impairments. As the ALJ found at step two, the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease was noted to be stable since the alleged onset date and the Plaintiff reported no respiratory disease in 2012. The ALJ noted that the Plaintiff's hypertension was also found by her treating physician to be well controlled and stable. Additionally, the Plaintiff testified that her high blood pressure was controlled "very well" with medication. (R. at 53.) Her insomnia was noted to be improved with over-the-counter medications, and the Plaintiff does not suggest how it would have impacted her ability to perform sedentary work. The ALJ's step two analysis included extensive discussion of the Plaintiff's depression, (R. at 24), and the Plaintiff testified that she did not have any mental problems that prevented her from working (R. at 50). An applicant's RFC is the most she can still do despite her limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). The ALJ did not ignore an entire line of evidence that was contrary to his findings. Without any limitations associated with the chronic obstructive ...