United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
OPINION AND ORDER
CHRISTOPHER A. NUECHTERLEIN, Magistrate Judge.
On November 20, 2013, Plaintiff Johnny Nichols ("Nichols") filed his complaint in this Court seeking reversal of the Commissioner's final decision denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits. Alternatively, Nichols seeks remand for further consideration of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits. On June 4, 2014, Nichols filed Plaintiff's Memorandum in Support of His Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. [Doc. No. 19]. On September 9, 2014, Defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") filed a response, asking the Court to affirm the decision denying benefits. [Doc. No. 24]. Nichols filed a reply brief on September 24, 2014. [Doc. No. 25]. This Court may enter a ruling in this matter based on the parties consent, 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND
In January 2011, Nichols filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits with the Social Security Administration ("SSA") alleging disability beginning January 9, 2011. After the SSA denied Nichols's application initially and upon reconsideration, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") held a hearing regarding Nichols's application on July 20, 2012.
Mr. Nichols was born on November 1, 1966, making him 44 years old at the alleged disability onset date. Nichols has a high school education and lives with wife and son. Prior to the alleged onset date Nichols worked at Weil McLain for approximately 25 years performing various jobs, some requiring Nichols to regularly lift 300-400 pounds. At his hearing before the ALJ, Nichols testified that over the past 10 years he had developed back pain that had finally reach the point of debilitation. Nichols provided the ALJ with medical evidence from 2008, three years before the alleged onset date, up to the date of the hearing in July 2012 that documented his visits to various doctors, including his treating physician Dr. Kora. The medical evidence and opinions show repeated visits and treatment for back pain.
Before the ALJ, Nichols also testified about his episodes of depression, which began about two months before the hearing. Dr. Kora had referred Nichols to a clinical psychologist, Dr. Israel, to discuss the depression that Nichols believed was caused by his back pain. In July 2012, just before the ALJ's hearing, Nichols underwent a psychiatric evaluation after admitting thoughts of suicide to Dr. Israel that were apparently brought on by stress, familial relationship troubles, and his back pain. The records of Nichols's episode of depression were in the record presented to the ALJ at the hearing.
After the hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision reflecting the following findings based on the five-step disability evaluation prescribed in the Social Security Administration's ("SSA's") regulations. At Step One, the ALJ found that Nichols had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 9, 2011, the alleged onset date. At Step Two, the ALJ found that the degenerative changes of Nichols's lumbar spine and hips, and his depression were severe impairments. At Step Three, the ALJ found that Nichols's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment. The ALJ also found that Nichols had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work except that Nichols could "never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds; occasionally climb ramp and stairs; occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl; would need a hand-held assistive device for uneven terrain and prolonged ambulation; would never be able to work around unprotected heights and vibration; and limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks." Doc. No. 13 at 50. At Step Four, the ALJ found that Nichols was unable to perform any past relevant work. At Step Five, the ALJ considered Nichols's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity from which he determined that jobs existed in the national economy that Nichols could perform, such as a final assembler of optical goods, a telemarketer, or a call out operator.
Based on these findings, the ALJ determined that Nichols had not been disabled from January 9, 2011, which was reflected in his written decision issued on August 10, 2012. Nichols requested that the Appeals Council review the decision of the ALJ and on September 21, 2013, the Appeals Council denied the request. Thus, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner for the purposes of judicial review.
A. Standard of Review
The Social Security Act authorizes judicial review of the final decision of the agency and indicates that the Commissioner's factual findings must be accepted as conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Thus, a court reviewing the findings of an ALJ will reverse only if the findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ has applied an erroneous legal standard. See Briscoe v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but may be less than the weight of the evidence. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699 (7th Cir. 2004). Thus, substantial evidence is simply "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Kepple v. Massanari, 468 F.3d 513, 516 (7th Cir. 2001).
A court reviews the entire administrative record but does not reconsider facts, re-weigh the evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See Boiles v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 421, 425 (7th Cir. 2005). Thus, the question upon judicial review of an ALJ's finding that a claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is not whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled, but whether the ALJ "uses the correct legal standards and the decision is supported by substantial evidence." Roddy v. Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2013). "[I]f the Commissioner commits an error of law, " the Court may reverse the decision "without regard to the volume of evidence in support of the factual findings." White v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 369, 373 (7th Cir. 1999).
Minimally, an ALJ must articulate his analysis of the evidence in order to allow the reviewing court to trace the path of his reasoning and to be assured that the ALJ considered the important evidence. See Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002). In other words, an ALJ must "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [his] conclusion so that [the reviewing court] may assess the validity of the agency's final decision and afford [a claimant] meaningful review." Giles ex rel. Giles v. Astrue, 483 F.3d 483, 487 (7th Cir. 2007). The ALJ need not specifically address every piece of evidence in the record, but must present a "logical bridge" from the evidence to his conclusions. O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 ...