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Summers v. Colvin

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

September 7, 2016

CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Gotoimoana Summers appeals the Social Security Administration's decision to deny her application for disability insurance benefits. An administrative law judge found that Summers was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Summers raises a number of challenges to this determination, but I conclude that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. The decision of the ALJ, therefore, will be affirmed.


         Summers was 51 years old at the time of her hearing. [DE 13 at 54.][1] She was 5'5'' and weighed 289 pounds. [Id.] She was unemployed, using her husband's insurance, and did not have a driver's license. [Id. at 55-56.] She testified that she completed the 12th grade, but required special education to do so. [Id. at 56-57.] Prior to her claim of disability, Summers had a 15 year record of consistent work as a production line worker, assembler, packager, and injection mold operator. [Id. at 73-74.] Most recently she worked at Elkhart Product, where she worked from 2005, as an assembler. [Id. at 59.] At the hearing, she initially told the ALJ that the last day she worked was February 24, 2012 and that she stopped working because she had health issues and was hospitalized for three days, but upon questioning by the ALJ, Summers admitted that she actually was fired. [Id. at 58.]

         A little more than a month after losing her job at Elkhart Product, on March 22, 2012, Summers filed an application for disability benefits. Summers alleged an onset date of February 24, 2012, the same date she was fired from her job. After a hearing before an ALJ, Summers' claim was denied.

         At the hearing, Summers testified along with a vocational expert. Summers has a number of medical problems that she is dealing with. Summers told the ALJ that she has a problem with her lungs and has problems breathing and gets light headaches and sometimes experiences dizziness and black outs. [Id. at 63-64.] She later said that she gets anxiety attacks when she has trouble breathing and her lungs close and that if she hasn't had enough oxygen, she gets really bad headaches, migraines, and dizziness, sometimes just passing out. [Id. at 67-68.] She said she has migraines and that she takes Tylenol for them. [Id. at 68.] Summers also told the ALJ that she was taking “heart pills . . . stress pills, depression - blood thinner medication . . use[s] [her] nebulizer inhaler” twice a day, and uses oxygen at night. [Id. at 64-65.] At the hearing, Summers was using a cane and said that a doctor prescribed it to her because she was having trouble walking around the store and standing when she was trying to pick something up. [Id. at 68-69.] Specifically, she said that her legs are swollen and she has trouble walking. [Id. at 69.]

         The ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. [DE 13 at 25-42.] At Step One, the ALJ found that Summers met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 24, 2012, the alleged onset date. [Id. at 27.] At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Summers suffered from obesity, an irregular heartbeat, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, sleep apnea, anxiety, and depression. [Id. at 28.] At Step Three, the ALJ determined that these various impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments. [Id. at 28.]

         Next, the ALJ found that Summers has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b). Here is Summers' RFC as determined by the ALJ:

lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling up to 20 pounds occasionally and up to ten pounds frequently; standing and/or walking (with normal breaks) for approximately six hours per eight-hour workday; sitting (with normal breaks) for approximately six hours per eight-hour workday; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional balancing, stooping, crouching, kneeling, and crawling; and, should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, humidity, and irritants such as fumes, odors, dust and gases, poorly ventilated areas, and chemicals. The claimant is limited to work in a low stress job, defined as requiring only occasional decision making and only occasional changes in the work setting. The claimant is limited to superficial interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the public, with superficial interaction defined as occasional and casual contact not involving prolonged conversation or discussion of involved issues. Contact with supervisors still involves necessary instruction. The claimant is unable to engage in complex or detailed tasks, but can perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks consistent with unskilled work, and she is able to sustain and attend to task throughout the workday.

[Id. at 31.] Given this RFC, and based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Summers is capable of performing past relevant work as an assembler and, in the alternative, concluded that there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Summers also can perform. [Id. at 41-42.]


         Summers makes five arguments as to how the ALJ erred, and I will evaluate each of them below, but in doing so I must keep in mind that judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited. If an ALJ's findings of fact are supported by “substantial evidence, ” then they must be sustained. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008). In making a substantial evidence determination, I must review the record as a whole, but I can't re-weigh the evidence or substitute my judgment for that of the ALJ. Id.

         Summers first objects to the RFC determination because the ALJ did not include a limitation to work that avoided exposure to machines, tools and sharp objects. The argument goes that because Summers is on anti-coagulation medications, if she were punctured at work, she would be a substantial bleeding risk. [DE 25 at 21-24.] Summers claims that her past relevant work as an assembler, which the ALJ found she was capable of doing, would expose her to “machines, tools, sharp objects etc.” and that “[t]he failure to include the limiting effects of this impairment in a hypothetical and the consequent RFC requires remand.” [Id. at 23.]

         Summers' argument is unpersuasive and lacks any basis in the evidence. In making her determination, the ALJ relied upon all of the evidence of record including Summers' testimony, the opinions of examining and reviewing doctors, and the clinical evidence. The record was devoid of any evidence to support Summers' assertion that her drug regimen places her at risk of severe bleeding episodes. Indeed, the evidence is to the contrary. In November 2012, the state medical consultant-Dr. Whitley-opined that Summers had the RFC to tolerate unlimited exposure to hazards such as machinery and heights. [DE 13 at 358.] The ALJ ultimately agreed with Dr. Whitley that the evidence did not support additional limitations for hazards [DE 30 at 5], but she nonetheless took a more conservative route when she determined that Summers should have a more restrictive RFC than the medium exertional level outlined in Dr. Whitley's opinion. In support of her argument, Summers ...

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