United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division
LORI L. CAMERON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
WILLIAM C. LEE, District Judge.
This matter is before the court for judicial review of a final decision of the defendant Commissioner of Social Security Administration denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) as provided for in the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §416(I). Section 205(g) of the Act provides, inter alia, "[a]s part of his answer, the [Commissioner] shall file a certified copy of the transcript of the record including the evidence upon which the findings and decision complained of are based. The court shall have the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner], with or without remanding the case for a rehearing." It also provides, "[t]he findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. §405(g).
The law provides that an applicant for disability insurance benefits must establish an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months...." 42 U.S.C. §416(i)(1); 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A). A physical or mental impairment is "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(3). It is not enough for a plaintiff to establish that an impairment exists. It must be shown that the impairment is severe enough to preclude the plaintiff from engaging in substantial gainful activity. Gotshaw v. Ribicoff , 307 F.2d 840 (7th Cir. 1962), cert. denied, 372 U.S. 945 (1963); Garcia v. Califano , 463 F.Supp. 1098 (N.D.Ill. 1979). It is well established that the burden of proving entitlement to disability insurance benefits is on the plaintiff. See Jeralds v. Richardson , 445 F.2d 36 (7th Cir. 1971); Kutchman v. Cohen , 425 F.2d 20 (7th Cir. 1970).
Given the foregoing framework, "[t]he question before [this court] is whether the record as a whole contains substantial evidence to support the [Commissioner's] findings." Garfield v. Schweiker , 732 F.2d 605, 607 (7th Cir. 1984) citing Whitney v. Schweiker , 695 F.2d 784, 786 (7th Cir. 1982); 42 U.S.C. §405(g). "Substantial evidence is defined as more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Rhoderick v. Heckler , 737 F.2d 714, 715 (7th Cir. 1984) quoting Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1410, 1427 (1971); see Allen v. Weinberger , 552 F.2d 781, 784 (7th Cir. 1977). "If the record contains such support [it] must [be] affirmed, 42 U.S.C. §405(g), unless there has been an error of law." Garfield, supra at 607; see also Schnoll v. Harris , 636 F.2d 1146, 1150 (7th Cir. 1980).
In the present matter, after consideration of the entire record, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") made the following findings:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2007.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 31, 2004, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq. ).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; impingement syndrome in the right hip; right knee osteophytes; left eye blindness; and obesity; however, the evidence did not establish any severe impairments prior to the date last insured (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) and can lift up to 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; in an eight-hour work day can sit for approximately six hours and can stand and walk in combination for approximately six hours; can never crawl or climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, crouch and kneel; due to vision loss in her left eye can have no exposure to unprotected heights, commercial driving or hazardous machinery.
6. The claimant does not have any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
7. The claimant was born on February 28, 1971, and was 33 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
8. The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
9. Transferability of job skills is not an issue in this case because the claimant's past relevant work is unskilled (20 CFR 404.1568 and 416.968).
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from October 31, 2004, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).
Based upon these findings, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability insurance benefits. The ALJ's decision became the final agency decision when the Appeals Council denied review. This appeal followed.
Plaintiff filed her opening brief on September 16, 2014. On December 22, 2014, the defendant filed a memorandum in support of the Commissioner's decision, and on March 12, 2015, Plaintiff filed her reply. Upon full review of the record in this cause, this court is of the view that the ALJ's decision should be remanded.
A five step test has been established to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See Singleton v. Bowen , 841 F.2d 710, 711 (7th Cir. 1988); Bowen v. Yuckert , 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2290-91 (1987). The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has summarized that test as follows:
The following steps are addressed in order: (1) Is the claimant presently unemployed? (2) Is the claimant's impairment "severe"? (3) Does the impairment meet or exceed one of a list of specific impairments? (4) Is the claimant unable to perform his or her former occupation? (5) Is the claimant unable to perform any other work within the economy? An affirmative answer leads either to the next step or, on steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. A negative answer at any point, other than step 3, stops the inquiry and leads to a determination that the claimant is not disabled.
Nelson v. Bowen , 855 F.2d 503, 504 n.2 (7th Cir. 1988); Zalewski v. Heckler , 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir. 1985); accord Halvorsen v. Heckler , 743 F.2d 1221 (7th Cir. 1984). From the nature of the ALJ's decision to deny benefits, it is clear that step five was the determinative inquiry.
Plaintiff was born on February 28, 1971 and has completed the ninth grade. Plaintiff alleged the following medical impairments: degenerative arthritis in both hips; multilevel degenerative disc disease in the lumbar spine; arthritis in both knees; defective medial meniscus in the right knee; mild facet arthropathy at L4-L5; small left paracentral disc protrusion superimposed and mild diffuse ridge-fault complex at L5-S1; labral tear in the right hip with an acetabular impingement; plantar fasciitis in both heels; otitis externa and otitis media in both ears; chronic left ear drainage; chronic tympanic membrane perforation in the left ear; chronic pain syndrome; obesity; Stickler's syndrome; localized rhegmatogenous retinal detachment with lattice degeneration; post scleral buckle implantation with cryoretinopexy of the right eye; and major depression.
The medical evidence is as follows: Plaintiff's primary treating physician, Dr. David Reinhard, ordered a number of x-rays, CT scans, and MRI's over the nearly five years that he treated Plaintiff. In July of 2007 a bilateral hip x-ray was performed which showed stable appearance of the pelvis with mild degenerative changes in the left hip. (Tr. 376) On the same day, an MRI of the right hip was done which showed stable appearance of the hip with mild joint space narrowing. (Tr. 366) An MRI of the right hip in September of 2008 was negative, but an osseous protuberance of the femoral head and neck junction bilaterally may predispose her to CAM type femoral acetabular impingement. (Tr. 375) An x-ray of the pelvis in October of 2008 showed osteoarthritic changes asymmetrically involving the right hip greater than the left. (Tr. 374) An x-ray of the right hip in October of 2008 showed osteoarthritis in the right hip. (Tr. 373) In July of 2010 an x-ray of the thoracic spine was negative. (Tr. 372) In August of 2010 an x-ray of the lumbar spine showed multilevel degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 369)
In October of 2010 an x-ray of both knees showed mild degenerative changes in the right patellofemoral joint. (Tr. 368) In October of 2010 a CT scan of the neck was negative. (Tr. 367) In October of 2010 an MRI was done of the right knee which showed a defect in the midposterior limb of the medial meniscus, cartilage thinning and irregularity of medial femoral condyle and lateral facet of the patella, degenerative osteophytes of the patellofemoral joint, and possible small intra-articular loose body medial femorotibial joint compartment. (Tr. 364)
An MRI of the lumbar spine done in April of 2007 showed mild facet arthropathy at L4-L5 and a small left paracentral disc protrusion superimposed in a mild diffuse ridge-vault complex at L5-S1. (Tr. 362) Follow-up MRI of the lumbar spine done in January of 2012 showed no significant change since the previous MRI. (Tr. 476)
Dr. Reinhard also saw Plaintiff in his office for various medical problems. In July of 2007, Plaintiff visited Dr. Reinhard for bilateral hip pain which she had reported was going on to some degree for 10 years; however, recently it had become worse. (Tr. 342) Plaintiff had tried Naproxen which no longer helped. (Id.) Plaintiff reported that the pain became very severe, and at times it reached a level of 10 out of 10. (Id.) Plaintiff reported some back pain, but indicated that it was not severe. (Id.) On physical exam Plaintiff had quite a bit of tenderness in the anterior hip when it was rotated out, and the muscles felt ...