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Zeider v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

August 31, 2016

DIANE ZEIDER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          JON E. DEGUILIO, Judge

         Plaintiff Diane Zeider, on behalf of her deceased husband Robert Zeider, seeks judicial review of the denial of Mr. Zeider's claim for disability benefits. For the following reasons, the Court reverses the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security and remands this matter for further proceedings.

         I. FACTS

         Robert Zeider worked for many years as a crop sprayer until he was laid off in September 2006. Years later, he applied for social security disability benefits, alleging that he was unable to work due to various physical and mental ailments, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, and depression. In particular, he claimed that he experienced shortness of breath and difficulty breathing with any exertion, which had prevented him from finding or maintaining any gainful employment since he was laid off. Mr. Zeider's Date Last Insured was December 31, 2011, meaning that he needed to establish that he was disabled by that date in order to qualify for disability benefits. His condition worsened shortly after that date, as he had a heart attack in January 2012. After the Commissioner had already denied his claim initially and upon reconsideration, Mr. Zeider suffered another heart attack and died on July 7, 2013.

         Mr. Zeider's wife, Diane Zeider, was therefore substituted as the claimant and testified at an administrative hearing on Mr. Zeider's behalf. Following the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge issued a written decision finding that Mr. Zeider was not disabled by the time of his Date Last Insured. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Zeider had a severe impairment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. At step three, she found that Mr. Zeider did not meet or equal any listed impairment. Accordingly, she proceeded to formulate Mr. Zeider's residual functional capacity, which is a description of what an individual can still do despite his limitations. She concluded that through his Date Last Insured, Mr. Zeider had the ability to perform medium work-meaning he could stand and walk for up to 6 hours in an 8-hour day and lift 25 pounds frequently and 50 pounds occasionally-except that he could have only occasional exposure to extreme heat, dust, and other pulmonary irritants. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that an individual with that residual functional capacity would be unable to perform Mr. Zeider's past work (step four), but that he would be able to perform other jobs (step five). She therefore found that Mr. Zeider was not disabled by his Date Last Insured, so she denied his claim for benefits. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Zeider's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Mr. Zeider filed this suit seeking review of that decision, and this Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         This Court will affirm the Commissioner's findings of fact and denial of disability benefits if they are supported by substantial evidence. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         This evidence must be “more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Thus, even if “reasonable minds could differ” about the disability status of the claimant, the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision as long as it is adequately supported. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         In this substantial-evidence determination, the Court considers the entire administrative record but does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute the Court's own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Nevertheless, the Court conducts a “critical review of the evidence” before affirming the Commissioner's decision. Id. An ALJ must evaluate both the evidence favoring the claimant as well as the evidence favoring the claim's rejection and may not ignore an entire line of evidence that is contrary to the ALJ's findings. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 888 (7th Cir. 2001). Consequently, an ALJ's decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues. Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539. While the ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, the ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Disability insurance benefits are available only to those individuals who can establish disability under the terms of the Social Security Act. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998). Specifically, the claimant must be unable “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). The Social Security regulations create a five-step sequential evaluation process to be used in determining whether the claimant has established a disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). The steps are to be used in the following order:

1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity;
2. Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment;
3. Whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one listed in ...

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