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Lewis v. Colvin

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

June 29, 2015

LISA L. LEWIS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

ENTRY REVIEWING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

JANE MAGNUS-STINSON, District Judge.

Lisa Lewis applied for Social Security disability benefits from the Social Security Administration ("SSA") on July 7, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of June 10, 2009. [Filing No. 14-5 at 2.] Her application was denied initially on October 5, 2011, [Filing No. 14-4 at 2-4], and upon reconsideration on December 6, 2011, [Filing No. 14-4 at 11-12]. A hearing was held on January 28, 2013, before Administrative Law Judge Monica LaPolt (the "ALJ"), who issued a decision on February 21, 2013, determining that Ms. Lewis was not disabled and not entitled to receive disability benefits. [Filing No. 14-2 at 11-26; Filing No. 14-2 at 34.] The Appeals Counsel denied review on March 26, 2014, [Filing No. 14-2 at 2-4], making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision subject to judicial review. Ms. Lewis then filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), requesting that the Court review the Commissioner's denial. [Filing No. 1.]

I.

BACKGROUND

Ms. Lewis was fifty-four years old when she applied for disability benefits with the SSA, alleging a disability onset date of June 10, 2009.[1] [Filing No. 14-5 at 2.] She has a bachelors' degree in elementary education and past relevant work as a grocery cashier, order clerk, parking garage attendant, debt collector, and building service assistant. [Filing No. 14-2 at 36; Filing No. 14-2 at 62-63.] At the time of her hearing in front of the ALJ, Ms. Lewis was employed full-time at a daycare as a teacher of toddlers under the age of two. [Filing No. 14-2 at 36-37.] She suffers from various impairments, which will be discussed as necessary below.[2] [Filing No. 14-2 at 13.] Ms. Lewis meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2015. [Filing No. 14-2 at 13.]

Using the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ issued an opinion on February 21, 2013, determining that Ms. Lewis was not entitled to receive disability benefits. [Filing No. 14-2 at 11-26.] The ALJ found a follows:

• At Step One of the analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Lewis had not engaged in substantial gainful activity[3] after the alleged disability onset date. [Filing No. 14-2 at 13.]
• At Step Two of the analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Lewis suffered from the following severe impairments: cirrhosis secondary to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis; mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; and obesity, in combination. [Filing No. 14-2 at 13.]
• At Step Three of the analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Lewis did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. [Filing No. 14-2 at 19.]
• After Step Three but before Step Four, the ALJ found that Ms. Lewis had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform "less than a full range of light work."[4] [Filing No. 14-2 at 24.] The ALJ found that Ms. Lewis "can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps or stairs [, but] can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds." [Filing No. 14-2 at 24.] The ALJ also found that Ms. Lewis can tolerate "moderate exposure to airborne irritants, including, but not limited to, fumes, odors, dust, and gases." [Filing No. 14-2 at 25.]
• At Step Four of the analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Lewis was capable of performing past relevant work as a grocery cashier, order clerk, parking garage evening attendant, and debt collector. [Filing No. 14-2 at 25.]
• The ALJ did not reach Step Five of the analysis due to her finding at Step Four that Ms. Lewis could perform her past relevant work. [Filing No. 14-2 at 25.]

Ms. Lewis sought review of the ALJ's decision from the Appeals Council, but that request was denied on March 26, 2014, [Filing No. 14-2 at 2-4], making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision subject to judicial review. Ms. Lewis then filed this action, asking that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and an award of benefits made to her, or in the alternative, that the case be remanded for further proceedings. [Filing No. 1; Filing No. 18 at 22.]

II.

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, 122 S.Ct. 1265, 152 L.Ed.2d 330 (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 ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ'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 ALJ "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 ALJ'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 ALJ 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, she will automatically be found disabled. If a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then she must satisfy step four. Once step four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish that the claimant is capable ...


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