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Thomas v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

May 1, 2015

NANCY JEAN THOMAS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

THERESA L. SPRINGMANN, District Judge.

The Plaintiff, Nancy Jean Thomas, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the Commissioner's decision to deny her supplemental security income. On October 26, 2012, Administrative Law Judge William E. Sampson denied the Plaintiff benefits, and that decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Counsel denied her request for review.

For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision in affirmed.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

This Court has the "power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Id. Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Liskowitz v. Astrue, 559 F.3d 736, 739 (7th Cir. 2009). The standard of review is deferential, and the court may not make independent credibility determinations or reconsider facts and evidence. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). Even if reasonable minds may differ as to whether the plaintiff is disabled, the court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 978 (7th Cir. 1996). However, conclusions of law are not entitled to such deference, and, if the ALJ commits an error of law, the decision must be reversed. Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 841 (7th Cir. 2007).

ANALYSIS

To be eligible for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423, and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act, §§ 1382, 1382c, a claimant must prove she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a 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 twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration uses a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled: (1) is the plaintiff currently unemployed; (2) does the plaintiff have a severe impairment; (3) does the plaintiff have an impairment that meets or equals one of the impairments listed as disabling in the Commissioner's regulations; (4) is the plaintiff unable to perform his past relevant work; and (5) is the plaintiff unable to perform any other work in the national economy? 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 512-13 (7th Cir. 2009); Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351-52 (7th Cir. 2005).

At the first step of the analysis, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date she applied for benefits. Proceeding to the next step, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments: Graves' disease;[1] degenerative changes of the left shoulder; mild degenerative changes of the lumbar spine; and dysthymic disorder. However, the ALJ concluded that there was no objective evidence that these impairments significantly limited the Plaintiff's ability to perform basic work activities. Therefore, he found that she did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, and was not entitled to benefits.

The Plaintiff maintains that the ALJ's finding that no single impairment or combination of impairments is severe was not based on substantial evidence, and that the ALJ imposed the wrong legal standard. Additionally, she argues that the ALJ "improperly gave no weight to the Plaintiffs's symptoms and cherry-picked the record to disregard the well-supported opinion of her treating physician." (Pl.'s Br. 1, ECF No. 22.) The Plaintiff's Brief does not address the ALJ's assessment of the limiting impact of the Plaintiff's medically determinable mental impairment, dysthymic disorder. This Court's Opinion is, thus, likewise limited to the Plaintiff's physical impairments.

A. Step Two Findings

An applicant for benefits must be found to have a severe impairment. The applicable regulations advise applicants that "[i]f you do not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, we will find that you do not have a severe impairment and are, therefore, not disabled. We will not consider your age, education, and work experience." 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c); see also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 149-50 (1987) (disability insurance benefit payments require a "threshold showing of medical severity"). The claimant has the burden to prove that an impairment is severe. Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 926 (7th Cir. 2010).

Impairments are not severe "when medical evidence establishes only a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities which would have no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work." SSR 85-28. The severity requirement is not met when medical evidence shows that the person is capable of performing the basic "abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." 20 C.F.R. § 416.921(b).

Examples of these include-(1) Physical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, or handling; (2) Capacities for seeing, hearing, and speaking; (3) Understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; (4) Use of judgment; (5) Responding appropriately to supervision, ...

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