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Stephens v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

September 27, 2016

KIRK W. STEPHENS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JOSEPH S. VAN BOKKELEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Kirk W. Stephens seeks judicial review of the Acting Social Security Commissioner's decision denying him Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for the period from March 31, 2010, through March 17, 2013, and asks this Court to remand the case. For the reasons below, the Court affirms the decision of the Acting Commissioner.

         A. Overview of the Case

         Plaintiff argues the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who denied him an SSI award (1) improperly evaluated Plaintiff's obesity and failed to adequately develop the record, (2) improperly weighed relevant medical opinions, and (3) improperly evaluated Plaintiff's combined limitations and resultant Residual Functional Capacity.

         On May 22, 2008, Plaintiff first submitted an application for SSI under 42 U.S.C. § 1381, which was denied. Almost two years later, Plaintiff filed a new SSI application. This second application was denied, reconsidered, and denied again. After these repeated denials, Plaintiff requested a hearing, which took place before ALJ Yvonne K. Stam. Stam ultimately found the Plaintiff not disabled. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision from the Appeals Council, but the Council declined to do so. As a result, the denial of SSI became the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff then appealed the decision to the District Court. The Court reversed the decision and remanded the case for further determinations regarding the ALJ's findings of credibility; assessment of Plaintiff's obesity; and consideration of Plaintiff's heart disease, fecal incontinence, arthritis of the right ankle, and loss of fine-motor control in his right hand.

         ALJ Maryann S. Bright received the case on remand and conducted a hearing where both Plaintiff and Robert S. Barkhaus, Ph.D., a vocational expert, testified. Because Plaintiff was found disabled beginning on March 18, 2013, by a favorable determination from a subsequent application for SSI, Bright's disability determination only considered the period from March 31, 2010, through March 17, 2013. Ultimately, Bright issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for SSI, which the Appeals Council declined to review. It is this decision which Plaintiff asks this Court to reverse.

         B. Standard of Review

         This Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court must ensure that the ALJ has built an “accurate and logical bridge” from evidence to conclusion. Thomas v. Colvin, 745 F.3d 802, 806 (7th Cir. 2014). The Court will uphold decisions that apply the correct legal standard and are supported by substantial evidence. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008).

         C. Disability Standard

         The Commissioner follows a five-step inquiry in evaluating claims for disability benefits under the Social Security Act:

(1) whether the claimant is currently employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment is one that the Commissioner considers conclusively disabling; (4) if the claimant does not have a conclusively disabling impairment, whether he can perform his past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.

Kastner v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 642, 646 (7th Cir. 2012).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at every step except step five. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000).

         D. ...


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