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Trittin v. Colvin

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

March 20, 2015

CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


DENISE K. LaRUE, Magistrate Judge.

The Commissioner of Social Security denied Tracy Trittin's applications for disability-insurance and supplemental-security-income benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Ms. Trittin now sues for judicial review of that denial.


Judicial review of the Commissioner's factual findings is deferential: courts must affirm if her findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Skarbek v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 500, 503 (7th Cir. 2004); Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, of the evidence. Wood v. Thompson, 246 F.3d 1026, 1029 (7th Cir. 2001). If the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that it adequately supports the Commissioner's decision, then it is substantial evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971); Carradine v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d 751, 758 (7th Cir. 2004). This limited scope of judicial review derives from the principle that Congress has designated the Commissioner, not the courts, to make disability determinations:

In reviewing the decision of the ALJ [administrative law judge], we cannot engage in our own analysis of whether [the claimant] is severely impaired as defined by the SSA regulations. Nor may we reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or, in general, substitute our own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Our task is limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.

Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Carradine, 360 F.3d at 758. While review of the Commissioner's factual findings is deferential, review of her legal conclusions is de novo. Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010).

The Social Security Act defines disability 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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). A person will be determined to be disabled only if his impairments "are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(B). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505, 404.1566, 416.905, and 416.966. The combined effect of all of an applicant's impairments shall be considered throughout the disability determination process. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(B) and 1382c(a)(3)(G). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1523 and 416.923.

The Social Security Administration has implemented these statutory standards in part by prescribing a "five-step sequential evaluation process" for determining disability. If disability status can be determined at any step in the sequence, an application will not be reviewed further. At the first step, if the applicant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, then he is not disabled. At the second step, if the applicant's impairments are not severe, then he is not disabled. A severe impairment is one that "significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." Third, if the applicant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or medically equal the criteria of any of the conditions included in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, Appendix 1, Part A, then the applicant is deemed disabled. The Listing of Impairments are medical conditions defined by criteria that the Social Security Administration has pre-determined are disabling. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525. If the applicant's impairments do not satisfy the criteria of a listing, then her residual functional capacity ("RFC") will be determined for the purposes of the next two steps. RFC is an applicant's ability to do work on a regular and continuing basis despite his impairment-related physical and mental limitations and is categorized as sedentary, light, medium, or heavy, together with any additional non-exertional restrictions. At the fourth step, if the applicant has the RFC to perform his past relevant work, then he is not disabled. Fifth, considering the applicant's age, work experience, and education (which are not considered at step four), and his RFC, the Commissioner determines if he can perform any other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 416.920(a)

The burden rests on the applicant to prove satisfaction of steps one through four. The burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to establish that there are jobs that the applicant can perform in the national economy. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004). If an applicant has only exertional limitations that allow her to perform the full range of work at her assigned RFC level, then the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 (the "grids"), may be used at step five to arrive at a disability determination. The grids are tables that correlate an applicant's age, work experience, education, and RFC with predetermined findings of disabled or not-disabled. If an applicant has non-exertional limitations or exertional limitations that limit the full range of employment opportunities at his assigned work level, then the grids may not be used to determine disability at that level. Instead, a vocational expert must testify regarding the numbers of jobs existing in the economy for a person with the applicant's particular vocational and medical characteristics. Lee v. Sullivan, 988 F.2d 789, 793 (7th Cir. 1993). The grids result, however, may be used as an advisory guideline in such cases.

An application for benefits, together with any evidence submitted by the applicant and obtained by the agency, undergoes initial review by a state-agency disability examiner and a physician or other medical specialist. If the application is denied, the applicant may request reconsideration review, which is conducted by different disability and medical experts. If denied again, the applicant may request a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ").[1] An applicant who is dissatisfied with the decision of the ALJ may request the SSA's Appeals Council to review the decision. If the Appeals Council either affirms or declines to review the decision, then the applicant may file an action in district court for judicial review. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). If the Appeals Council declines to review a decision, then the decision of the ALJ becomes the final decision of the Commissioner for judicial review.


In her applications, Ms. Trittin reported that she suffers from fibromyalgia, a heart condition (possible bradycardia), nausea, and asthma. (R. 182, 215.) Later, she alleged that she suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, migraines, and pain disorders, as well. She asserts that she suffers nausea, vomiting, dry heaves, diarrhea, irritable bowl syndrome, fatigue, and weakness as side effects of her fibromyalgia, which render her unable to maintain the stamina, persistence, and pace to perform substantial gainful activity. At most, she contends that she could perform a part-time job two to three days a week, lying down every day. ( Brief of Plaintiff [doc. 28] at 5-6.) Ms. Trittin has been represented by current counsel from her application to the present. (R. 215.)

Ms. Trittin's claims were denied on initial and reconsideration reviews, (R. 87-108), and she received a hearing before an ALJ, (R. 38-86). Ms. Trittin, her boyfriend with whom she has co-habited for one and one-half years, and a vocational expert testified. Ms. Trittin's counsel submitted emergency-room notes on the day before the hearing, (R. 501-09 (Exhibit 22F)), and the ALJ held open the record to receive additional evidence, (R. 17, 41, 45-46, 48, 85).[2] After the hearing, Ms. Trittin submitted to the ALJ additional records from John Hague, M.D., rheumatologist, (R. 17, 522-62 (Exhibit 24F)), and Stephen R. Pfeifer, M.D., and staff, (R. 17, 563-672 (Exhibit 25F)).

At step one, the ALJ determined that Ms. Trittin has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability-onset date in March 2010. At step two, the ALJ found that she suffers from the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, asthma/chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bradycardia, migraines, depression, pain disorder associated with both psychological factors and a general medical condition, and history of cannabis use. The ALJ found that seizure, nausea, diarrhea, and hypertension are not severe impairments. At step three, the ALJ found that Ms. Trittin does not have impairments, severe and non-severe, singly or in combination, that satisfy any of the conditions in the listing of impairments. She examined the listings for chronic pulmonary insufficiency (3.02), asthma (3.03), cardiovascular system (4.00 series), affective disorders (12.04), and substance-addiction disorders (12.09).

For steps four and five, the ALJ determined Ms. Trittin's RFC. She found that Ms. Trittin has the RFC to perform at the sedentary, light, and medium levels of exertion with the following additional restrictions: she must avoid certain environmental conditions;[3] she can understand, remember, and carry out short, simple instructions; she can sustain attention for two-hour segments; she can tolerate contact with co-workers, ...

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