United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division
DENISE K. LaRUE, Magistrate Judge.
The Commissioner of Social Security denied Michael Hardin's applications for disability benefits under the Social Security Act and he brought this suit for judicial review. Briefing is complete and the issues are ready for decision.
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"). 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.
Mr. Hardin applied for both disability-insurance and supplemental-security-income benefits under the Social Security Act. (R. 115-27.) In his applications, he alleged that he is disabled due to "bad knees, back pain, arm pain, hard to stand for long, " (R. 148), and that he became disabled on January 1, 2009, (R. 115, 122). He alleged that he can no longer walk or stand for a long time or lift, sit, or sleep well because of great pain in his knees and feet. (R. 196, 200, 202.) He claimed that he cannot lift more than fifteen pounds and is able to stand, walk, or sit for only an hour before needing to rest for an hour. (R. 200.) He finds it hard to sit for long periods of time because of knee pain. (R. 202.) He also alleged that he had breathing difficulties ("bad breathing") when climbing stairs. ( Id. ) Over a year later, at his October 2012 hearing, Mr. Hardin testified that his knees are the only impediment to working, (R. 37), although he still has a little problem with breathing, (R. 39). At the hearing, he also pushed forward his alleged onset date by almost two years, to December 4, 2010, when he would turn fifty years old. (R. 33.)
Mr. Hardin's applications were denied on initial and reconsideration reviews by the state agency. (R. 43-54, 58-71.) He requested and received a hearing before an administrative law judge of the Social Security Administration. (R. 31-42.) He and a vocational expert testified. ( Id. ) Mr. Hardin was represented by counsel at the hearing.
At step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Hardin had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his previously alleged onset date of January 1, 2009. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Hardin has the severe impairment of degenerative joint disease of the knee. At step three, he found that Mr. Hardin does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal any of the conditions in the Listing of Impairments. For the purposes of steps four and five, the ALJ determined that Mr. Hardin has the RFC for light work, with additional exertional and postural limitations. At step four, the ALJ found that Mr. Hardin has no past relevant work. At step five, relying on the opinion of the vocational expert, the ALJ found that a significant number of jobs that Mr. Hardin can perform exists in the national economy and, therefore, he is not disabled. (R. 17-26.) When the Commissioner's Appeals Council denied Mr. Hardin's request for review, (R. 1-4), the ALJ's decision became the final and operative decision of the Commissioner on Mr. Hardin's claims.
Mr. Hardin applied for benefits in May 2011. (R. 115-27.) The record shows the following chronology.
June 30, 2011 - consultative examination. After receiving his application, the state agency sent Mr. Hardin to Ibrar Paracha, M.D., for a physical examination, which was performed on June 30, 2011. Mr. Hardin reported to Dr. Paracha that he was disabled due to back and knee pain. He also reported shortness of breath and dyspnea on exertion, a one-block walking limit, a twenty-minutes standing limit, and the ability to lift fifteen pounds with each arm. Dr. Paracha's reported his impression as positive for bilateral knee crepitus; more pain in the left knee; lumbar spine tenderness; hip pain; severely limited gait due to pain; Mr. Hardin "will definitely benefit from an assistive device;" and it is unlikely that Mr. ...