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Martinez v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

September 21, 2016

ALEJANDRA MARTINEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO Judge

         On April 28, 2015, Plaintiff Alejandra Martinez filed a complaint in this Court, seeking review of the final decision of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for social security disability benefits [DE 1]. The matter is fully briefed and ripe for decision [DE 17; DE 22; DE 23]. For the reasons stated below, the Court remands this matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. FACTS

         Martinez filed applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) in early 2012, alleging an onset date of January 1, 2007.[1] Martinez cited a variety of conditions as the basis for her disability, including lower back and knee pain, neuropathy, diabetes, and depression. She later complained of pain in her hands and feet, and was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome[2] and Charcot arthropathy.[3]

         Martinez's applications were denied initially in May 2012, and on reconsideration in October 2012. On September 11, 2013, Martinez and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified during a hearing held before Administrative Law Judge Patricia Melvin (“ALJ”). Martinez testified that she had previously worked as a customer service representative with Centennial Wireless until December 2009, when she was terminated for needing time off after having used all of her FMLA time. She also worked for two years as a receptionist and home health aide with Covington Commons, but she was terminated for mistreating the elderly people. Martinez indicated that she is unable to work because of the constant pain in her lower back, feet, wrists, and hands, for which she takes Neurontin and Lidoderm. Standing aggravates her foot pain, sitting and walking aggravate her back pain, and using her hands repeatedly (“like when [she] would type, ” R. at 42) aggravates her hand pain. She acknowledged being diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis. She believed that she could stand and walk for approximately five to ten minutes, and sit for approximately thirty minutes to one hour.

         The VE testified that based strictly on the hypothetical posed to her (which offered an assigned residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[4] of sedentary work, limited by no climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling, no use of hazardous machinery, and no work involving slippery/uneven surfaces or unprotected heights), Martinez would be capable of performing work as a customer service representative and receptionist, as actually and generally performed in accordance with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”).

         The ALJ issued a decision on January 8, 2014, denying Martinez disability benefits and concluding that Martinez was not disabled under the Social Security Act because she was able to perform her past work as a customer service representative and receptionist (step 4). Given this finding, the ALJ did not address whether Martinez could perform other work (step 5). The Appeals Council then denied Martinez's request for review on February 26, 2015, making the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). Martinez seeks review of the Commissioner's decision thereby invoking this Court's jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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. Ultimately, 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 and supplemental 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 ...

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