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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Terre Haute Division

August 23, 2016

TRACY L. SMITH, Plaintiff,


          Hon. William T. Lawrence, Judge

         Plaintiff Tracy L. Smith requests judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Carolyn Colvin, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). The Court rules as follows.


         Smith filed her application for DIB in November 2009, alleging disability beginning on May 1, 2008. Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, whereupon she requested and was granted a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which took place in March 2011. The ALJ issued a decision in which he concluded that Smith was not disabled as defined by the Act. Upon review, the Appeals Council remanded Smith’s application for, inter alia, evaluation of the hearing testimony of psychologist Susan Pelzer, Ph.D., in light of evidence submitted subsequent the hearing. A second hearing was held before a different ALJ, who issued a decision in March 2013 concluding that Smith was not disabled. This time the Appeals Council denied Smith’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision, and Smith filed this action for judicial review.

         The Court referred this matter to Magistrate Judge William Hussmann to render a report and recommendation. Judge Hussmann determined that remand was necessary because it was not clear whether the second ALJ had properly reviewed Dr. Pelzer’s opinion, inasmuch as her testimony was not part of the administrative record on appeal. However, Judge Hussmann granted “the Commissioner leave to respond to [his] Report and Recommendation with evidence demonstrating that a transcript of Smith’s first hearing actually was part of the administrative record” before the second ALJ, and stated that if the Commissioner filed such evidence and a copy of the transcript, he would reconsider his recommendation. The Commissioner did so. Judge Hussmann retired before he could reconsider his recommendation, however. Accordingly, the Court has reviewed this matter de novo.


         The relevant evidence of record is aptly set forth in the parties’ briefs and the ALJ’s decision and need not be repeated here.


         Disability is defined as “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable mental or physical impairment which can be expected to result in death, or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve 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 that 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 twelvemonth duration requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed 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 is required to articulate only a minimal, but legitimate, justification for her acceptance or rejection of specific evidence of disability. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004). In order to be affirmed, the ALJ must articulate her analysis of the evidence in her decision; while she “is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony, ” she must “provide some glimpse into her reasoning . . . [and] build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to her conclusion.” Dixon, 270 F.3d at 1176.


         The ALJ found at step one that Smith did not engage in substantial gainful activity between her alleged onset date of May 1, 2008, and her date last insured, March 31, 2012. At steps two and three, the ALJ found that Smith had the severe impairments of diabetes, diabetic neuropathy, diabetic ketoacidosis, hepatitis C, cirrhosis, carpal tunnel syndrome, degenerative disc disease, obesity, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but that her impairments, singly or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. At step four, the ALJ concluded that during the relevant time period Smith had

the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a), which includes the ability to lift up to 10 pounds occasionally, stand and/or walk for two hours in an eight-hour workday, and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. She could occasionally climb ramps or stairs, but she could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. She could frequently handle and finger bilaterally. The claimant could occasionally reach overhead bilaterally. She had to avoid even moderate exposure to hazards. The claimant could understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine, repetitive instructions or tasks. She could maintain adequate attention and concentration for those tasks. The claimant could interact appropriately on a brief, superficial basis with coworkers and ...

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