United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
MARK J. DINSMORE, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Jeffrey Minor ("Minor") requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (SSA). See 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 1382c(a)(3). For the reasons set forth below, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the District Judge AFFIRM the decision of the Commissioner.
Minor filed his application for SSI on October 7, 2010, alleging an onset of disability on January 1, 1993. [R. at 258.] In his application, Minor alleged that he is disabled because of depression, anxiety, mental and psychotic disorders, and degenerative disc disease. [R. at 308.] The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Minor's claim initially on February 8, 2011 and upon reconsideration on April 28, 2011. [R. at 28.] Minor timely requested a hearing, which was held before Administrative Law Judge John H. Metz ("ALJ") on September 24, 2012. Also present were Minor's attorney, Michael G. Myers, medical experts Lee Fisher, M.D. and Jack Thomas, Ph.D., and vocational expert Constance Brown, C.R.C. [ Id. ] The ALJ's October 3, 2012 decision again denied Minor's application for SSI. [R. at 39.] On January 14, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Minor's request for review, thereby rendering the ALJ's October 3rd decision final. [R. at 25.] Minor timely filed his Complaint with this Court on March 20, 2014, which Complaint is now before the Court.
II. Legal Standard
To be eligible for SSI, a claimant must be disabled, as defined by 42 U.S.C. § 416. Therein, 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 § 416(i). In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner employs a five-step sequential analysis: (1) if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled; (2) if the claimant does not have a "severe" impairment that significantly limits his ability to perform basic work activities, he is not disabled; (3) if the Commissioner determines that the claimant's impairment meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, App. 1, the claimant is disabled; (4) if the claimant is not found to be disabled at step three and he is able to perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled; and (5) if the claimant can perform certain other available work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), identifying the claimant's functional limitations and assessing the claimant's remaining capacities for work-related activities. S.S.R. 96-8p.
In reviewing the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's findings of fact are conclusive and must be upheld by the court "so long as substantial evidence supports them and no error of law occurred." Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). The standard of substantial evidence is measured by whether "a reasonable mind might accept [the evidence] as adequate to support a conclusion." Powers v. Apfel, 207 F.3d 431, 434 (7th Cir. 2000) (quoting Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 305 (7th Cir. 1995)). The court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ, but may only determine whether or not substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion. Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008). The ALJ "need not evaluate in writing every piece of testimony and evidence submitted, " Carlson v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 180, 181 (7th Cir. 1993), but the ALJ must consider "all the relevant evidence, " Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994). In order to be affirmed, the ALJ must articulate his analysis of the evidence in his decision; he must "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [his] conclusion." Dixon, 270 F.3d at 1176.
III. The ALJ's Decision
Applying the five-step analysis, the ALJ found at step one that Minor has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 1993, the alleged onset date. [R. at 30.] At step two, the ALJ found that Minor has the following "severe" impairments: "depression, anxiety, antisocial personality disorder with paranoid and narcissistic personality disorder features, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia." [ Id. ] At step three, the ALJ concluded that Minor does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a Listed Impairment. [R. at 31.] In relevant part, the ALJ relied on medical evidence of record and testimony from Dr. Fisher, M.D., a board certified physician, in evaluating Minor's back condition. [ Id. ] Ultimately, the ALJ found that "the objective... findings do not demonstrate nerve root impingement and/or compromise of the spinal cord" and concluded that Minor's condition does not meet or medically equal Listing 1.04 for disorders of the spine. [ Id. ]
The ALJ then proceeded to assess Minor's residual functional capacity (RFC) and concluded that Minor can sit and stand up to two hours at a time during an eight hour work day and is capable of performing light exertional work. [R. at 38.] The ALJ found at step four that the RFC does not allow Minor to perform his past relevant work because all of his past jobs exceed light exertional work and are semi-skilled. [ Id. ] However, at step five, the ALJ determined that a person with Minor's age, education, work experience, and RFC could perform work as a housekeeper, an office machine operator, or a mail clerk. [R. at 39.] Because these jobs exist in significant numbers in the State of Indiana, the ALJ concluded that Minor is not disabled pursuant to the Social Security Act. [ Id. ]
Although the ALJ found Minor to have several severe impairments, Minor contends only that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded because "the ALJ improperly discredit[ed] the opinion of Mr. Minor's treating physician [Dr. Justus]." Specifically, Minor asserts that: (1) the ALJ failed to give Dr. Justus's opinion controlling weight and (2) the ALJ improperly gave more weight to the opinions of non-examining medical experts and State agency reviewers over those of Dr. Sova, the consultative examiner, and Dr. Justus. [Dkt. 15 at 15.]
In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ must evaluate every medical opinion he receives. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(b). Medical opinions are therein defined as "statements from physicians... that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of your impairment(s), including your symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what you can still do ...