United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division
SARA L. MITCHAM, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
DENISE K. LaRUE, Magistrate Judge.
The Commissioner of Social Security denied Sara L. Mitcham's claim for disability-insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. Ms. Mitcham brought this suit for judicial review of that denial. Briefing is now complete and the matter is ready for decision. The parties consented to this magistrate judge conducting all proceedings in this Cause, including entry of judgment, [docs. 4 and 12], and the district judge referred the Cause accordingly, [doc. 15].
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.
In February 2011, Ms. Mitcham applied for disability-insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging that she became disabled on April 28, 2010. Her claim was denied on initial and reconsideration reviews by the state agency. (R. 98-106, 108-114.) A hearing before an ALJ was held on September 14, 2012, at which she, her daughter, and a vocational expert testified. (R. 34-76.) She was represented by current counsel during the hearing. The ALJ denied her claim on September 25, 2012, (R. 20-29), and she asked the Commissioner's Appeals Council to review that denial, (R. 15-16). She submitted additional evidence to the Appeals Council, consisting of medical evidence that was generated after the hearing and the ALJ's decision. (R. 633-36); [docs. 31-1, 31-2.] The Appeals Council denied her request for review, (R. 1-4), which rendered the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner on Ms. Mitcham's claim and the one that the Court reviews.
The ALJ initially found that Ms. Mitcham last met the insured-status requirements for disability-insurance benefits on March 31, 2012, (R. 22), which meant that she had to establish that she was disabled as of that date. At step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Mitcham had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of April 28, 2010 to her date last insured. At step two, he found that she has the severe impairment of status post lumbar surgery. The ALJ also found that Ms. Mitcham had the non-severe impairment of status post bilateral carpal tunnel release surgery in 1993. At step three, the ALJ found that Ms. Mitcham 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 Ms. Mitcham's RFC. He found that she could perform light work with additional climbing, postural, and environmental restrictions. He found that this RFC prevented the performance of any of Ms. Mitcham's past relevant work. At step five, relying on the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ found that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that Ms. Mitcham can perform and, therefore, she was not ...