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Congious v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

September 22, 2016

JOSIE MARIA CONGIOUS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PAUL R. CHERRY, MAGISTRATE JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT.

         This matter is before the Court on a Complaint [DE 1], filed by Plaintiff Josie Maria Congious on April 3, 2015, and a Brief in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 20], filed by Plaintiff on September 21, 2015. Plaintiff requests that the November 25, 2013 decision of the Administrative Law Judge denying her claim for disability insurance benefits be reversed and remanded for further proceedings. On December 28, 2015, the Commissioner filed a response, and Plaintiff filed a reply on January 14, 2016. Because the ALJ erred at step three in finding that Plaintiff does not meet Listing 14.02, the Court grants Plaintiff's request for remand.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed for disability insurance benefits on January 10, 2012. Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing, which was held on November 12, 2013, and presided over by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Angelita Hamilton. Present at the hearing were Plaintiff, her non-attorney representative, and an impartial vocational expert.

         The ALJ issued a written decision on November 25, 2013, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled based on the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2014.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 3, 2011, the alleged onset date.
3. The claimant has the following severe impairment[s]: lupus, degenerative disc disease; COPD; and obesity.
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) in that the claimant can lift or carry ten (10) pounds occasionally and less than ten (10) pounds frequently, can stand and/or walk about two (2) hours and can sit about six (6) hours during an eight hour workday, except: the claimant can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps or stairs, but she must never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; the claimant can tolerate occasional exposure to wetness, humidity, and excessive vibration; the claimant can tolerate occasional exposure to pulmonary irritants such as dusts, odors, fumes, and gases; and the claimant can tolerate occasional exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights, raw chemicals, and dangerous machinery.
6. The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a telemarketer [D.O.T. # 299.357-014]. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity (20 CFR 404.1565).
7. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from September 3, 2011, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(f)).

(AR 1-22). Plaintiff then sought review before the Agency's Appeals Council, which denied her request on February 3, 2015, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. On April 3, 2015, Plaintiff filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) for review of the Agency's decision.

         The parties filed forms of consent to have this case assigned to a United States Magistrate Judge to conduct all further proceedings and to order the entry of a final judgment in this case. This Court thus has jurisdiction to decide this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Social Security Act authorizes judicial review of the final decision of the agency and indicates that the Commissioner's factual findings must be accepted as conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Thus, a court reviewing the findings of an ALJ will reverse only if the findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ has applied an erroneous legal standard. See Briscoe v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005) (quoting Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003)).

         A court reviews the entire administrative record but does not reconsider facts, re-weigh the evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See Boiles v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 421, 425 (7th Cir. 2005); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000); Butera v. Apfel, 173 F.3d 1049, 1055 (7th Cir. 1999). Thus, the question upon judicial review of an ALJ's finding that a claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is not whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled, but whether the ALJ “uses the correct legal standards and the decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Roddy v. Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2010); Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 734-35 (7th Cir. 2006); Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004)). “[I]f the Commissioner commits an error of law, ” the Court may reverse the decision “without regard to the volume of evidence in support of the factual findings.” White v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 369, 373 (7th Cir. 1999) (citing Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997)).

         At a minimum, an ALJ must articulate her analysis of the evidence in order to allow the reviewing court to trace the path of her reasoning and to be assured that the ALJ considered the important evidence. See Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002); Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 307 (7th Cir. 1995); Green v. Shalala, 51 F.3d 96, 101 (7th Cir. 1995). An ALJ must “‘build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [the] conclusion' so that [a reviewing court] may assess the validity of the agency's final decision and afford [a claimant] meaningful review.” Giles v. Astrue, 483 F.3d 483, 487 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Scott, 297 F.3d at 595)); see also O'Connor-Spinner, 627 F.3d at 618 (“An ALJ need not specifically address every piece of evidence, but must provide a ‘logical bridge' between the evidence and his conclusions.”); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 889 (7th Cir. 2001) (“[T]he ALJ's analysis must provide some glimpse into the reasoning behind [the] decision to deny benefits.”).

         DISABILITY STANDARD

         To be eligible for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that she suffers from a “disability” as defined by the Social Security Act and regulations. The Act defines “disability” as an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A). To be found disabled, the claimant's impairment must not only prevent her from doing her previous work, but considering her age, education, and work experience, it must also prevent her ...


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