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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

May 15, 2015

Laura L. Smith, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

ENTRY REVIEWING THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION

Hon. Jane Magnus-Stinson, Judge.

Plaintiff Laura Smith applied for disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) in August 2011, alleging a disability onset date of April 12, 2011. [Filing No. 12-5 at 2-15.] Her application was denied initially on October 3, 2011, and after reconsideration on December 9, 2011. [Filing No. 12-3 at 2-7.] Administrative Law Judge Joseph Brinkley (the “ALJ”) held a hearing on January 31, 2013, and issued a decision on February 22, 2013, concluding that Ms. Smith was not entitled to receive benefits. [Filing No. 12-2 at 22-33.] The Appeals Council reviewed the ALJ’s decision, and issued its own decision on April 21, 2014 in which it also concluded that Ms. Smith was not entitled to receive benefits – although for different reasons than those relied upon by the ALJ. [Filing No. 12-2 at 6-10.] Ms. Smith then filed this civil action, asking the Court to review the denial of benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). [Filing No. 1.]

I.

Standard of Review

“The Social Security Act authorizes payment of disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income to individuals with disabilities.” Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214 (2002). “The statutory definition of ‘disability’ has two parts. First, it requires a certain kind of inability, namely, an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. Second it requires an impairment, namely, a physical or mental impairment, which provides reason for the inability. The statute adds that the impairment must be one that has lasted or can be expected to last . . . not less than 12 months.” Id. at 217.

When an applicant appeals an adverse benefits decision, this Court’s role is limited to ensuring that the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the Commissioner’s decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). Because the Commissioner “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008), this Court must afford the Commissioner’s credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong, ” Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

The Commissioner must apply the five-step inquiry set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), evaluating the following, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently [un]employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant’s impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the [Commissioner]; (4) whether the claimant can perform [her] past work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.

Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted) (alterations in original). “If a claimant satisfies steps one, two, and three, [he] will automatically be found disabled. If a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then [he] must satisfy step four. Once step four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.” Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).

After Step Three, but before Step Four, the Commissioner must determine a claimant’s RFC by evaluating “all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009). In doing so, the Commissioner “may not dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling.” Id. The Commissioner uses the RFC at Step Four to determine whether the claimant can perform her own past relevant work and if not, at Step Five to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e), (g). The burden of proof is on the claimant for Steps One through Four; only at Step Five does the burden shift to the Commissioner. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

If the Commissioner committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner’s decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When the Commissioner’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits “is appropriate only where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id.(citation omitted).

II.

Background

Ms. Smith was forty-six years old when she applied for disability benefits in August 2011. [Filing No. 12-5 at 6.][1] Ms. Smith previously worked at a nursing home as a housekeeper and a laundry worker. [Filing No. 12-2 at 58.] She alleges a disability onset date of April 12, 2011. [Filing No. 12-6 at 2.] Ms. Smith claims that she is disabled based on a variety of conditions, which will be discussed as necessary below.

III.

The ALJ and Appeals Council Decisions

In this case, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Ms. Smith was not entitled to benefits, [Filing No. 12-2 at 22-33], and the Appeals Council then affirmed that decision but disagreed with some of the ALJ’s findings, [Filing No. 12-2 at 6-10]. Specifically, the ALJ found as follows:

· At Step One of the analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Smith had not engaged in substantial gainful activity[2] since her alleged onset date of ...

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