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Kaiser v. Colvin

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

June 18, 2015

LACI C. KAISER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


MARK J. DINSMORE, Magistrate Judge.

Laci Kaiser ("Plaintiff") requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). See 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d). For the reasons set forth below, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the decision of the Commissioner be REVERSED and REMANDED.

Procedural History and Background

Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on May 4, 2011, alleging an onset of disability on January 25, 2007. [R. at 28.] She had past work experience as a secretary and construction worker, [R. at 38], and she alleged she was disabled because of headaches, a left ankle fracture, depression, anxiety, and mood disorder. [R. at 30.][1]

The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiff's claim initially on June 30, 2011 and upon reconsideration on August 9, 2011. [R. at 28.] Plaintiff requested a hearing, and on May 4, 2012, Plaintiff appeared via videoconference before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Angela Miranda. [ Id. ] Also present were Plaintiff's attorney, Mark Mora, and vocational expert Timothy Bobrowski. [R. at 46.] The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time from the alleged onset date through the date of her February 21, 2013 decision. [R. at 40.] The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 10, 2014, thereby rendering the ALJ's decision final. [R. at 1-6.] Plaintiff then filed her complaint with this Court on September 10, 2014.

Applicable Standard

To be eligible for DIB, a claimant must have a disability under 42 U.S.C. § 423.[2]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. § 423(d)(1)(A). In order to be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work, but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner employs a five-step sequential analysis. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled despite her medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). At step two, if the claimant does not have a "severe" impairment (i.e., one that significantly limits her ability to perform basic work activities), she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, App. 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelve-month duration requirement; if so, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). At step five, if the claimant can perform any other work in the national economy, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).

In reviewing the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's findings of fact are conclusive and must be upheld by this 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). "Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. This court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. 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). However, the "ALJ's decision must be based upon consideration of all the relevant evidence." Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994). To be affirmed, the ALJ must articulate her analysis of the evidence in her decision; she "is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony, " but she must provide a "glimpse into her reasoning" and "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to her conclusion." Dixon, 270 F.3d at 1176. The Court, that is, "must be able to trace the ALJ's path of reasoning" from the evidence to her conclusion. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 874 (7th Cir. 2000), as amended (Dec. 13, 2000).

The ALJ's Decision

The ALJ first determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2012. [R. at 30.] At step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of January 25, 2007. [ Id. ]

At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following "severe" impairments: "headaches variously described as migraines, vascular headaches, [and] mixed headaches... with suggestion of pituitary hemorrhage or pituitary adenoma [or] Rathke cyst;" obesity; "left ankle fracture with surgical correction (ORFI);" and "mental impairments assessed as depression, anxiety, and mood disorder." [ Id. ] At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a Listed impairment. [R. at 31.] The ALJ accounted for Plaintiff's mental impairments by specifically considering Listing 12.04 (affective disorders), and Listing 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders). [R. at 32.] In doing so, the ALJ employed the SSA's special technique for evaluating such impairments. [R. at 32-33.] She thus assessed the "Paragraph B" criteria, and she determined that Plaintiff had "mild" restriction in activities of daily living; had "mild" limitations in social functioning; had "moderate" difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and had no episodes of decompensation of an extended duration. [R. at 32.] She thus concluded that the Paragraph B criteria were not satisfied. [R. at 33.] The ALJ then considered the "Paragraph C" criteria, but she found that the medical evidence of record did not support the existence of these criteria for either Listing 12.04 or Listing 12.06. [ Id. ]

After step three but before step four, the ALJ analyzed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). She concluded that Plaintiff had RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(a), but with certain additional limitations:

More specifically, the claimant has the residual functional capacity to occasionally lift and carry 10 pounds and to frequently lift and carry light articles weighing less than 10 pounds. The claimant has the capacity to stand and/or walk 2 hours in an 8-hour workday and has the capacity to sit 6-8 hours in an 8-hour workday. The claimant has unlimited ability to push and pull up to the capacity for lifting and carrying. The claimant has the capacity to occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb stairs and ramps. The claimant has no limitations in the ability to balance and no limitations in manipulative abilities. Environmentally the claimant should work in an environment classified as "quiet" and should have only occasional exposure to possible headache inducing agents such as dust, fumes, or other pulmonary irritants. Mentally the claimant has the capacity to understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine tasks with the capability to utilize common sense understanding to carry out instructions, to deal with several concrete variables in standardized situations, and to sustain this mental ability consistent with the normal demands of a workday including regular breaks and meal periods. The claimant has the capacity to appropriately interact with supervisor[s], coworkers, and the general-public. The claimant has the capacity to identify and avoid normal work place hazards and to adapt to routine changes in the work place.

[R. at 33.] The ALJ concluded at step four that this RFC did not allow Plaintiff to perform her past relevant work as a secretary or construction worker. [R. at 38.] At step five, the ALJ received testimony from the vocational expert and determined that a person with Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC could perform jobs such as addresser, surveillance system monitor, and call out operator. [R. at 39.] Because these jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled. [R. at 39-40.]


Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in three ways. She first argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated her credibility. [Dkt. 15 at 16.] She then contends that the ALJ failed to account for the impact of her headaches on her ability to maintain employment. [ Id. at 21.] She finally argues that the ALJ erred at step three of the sequential evaluation process by not discussing whether her ankle and head impairments met or equaled certain Listings. [Dkt. 15 at 24.] Plaintiff's last argument ultimately is dispositive, and the Court addresses this argument first.

A. Step Three Equivalence Determination

At step three of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ considered and rejected Listing 12.04 and Listing 12.06. [R. at 32-33.] She did not consider Listing 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint) or Listing 11.03 (nonconvulsive epilepsy). [ See id. ] Plaintiff now contends that the ALJ erred because her impairments met or equaled these latter Listings. [Dkt. 15 at 24.] To prevail on this argument, Plaintiff "has the burden of showing that [her] impairments meet a listing, and [she] must show that [her] impairments satisfy all of the various criteria specified in the listing." Ribaudo v. Barnhart, 458 F.3d 580, 583 (7th Cir. 2006). In addition, remand may be required if the Court cannot meaningfully review the accuracy of the ALJ's step three determination. See id. (citation omitted) ("[T]his court has also held that an ALJ should mention the specific listings he is considering and ...

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