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Spears v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

October 5, 2016

SANDRA B. SPEARS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Sandra B. Spears applied for disability benefits under the Social Security Act on October 20, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of September 24, 2010. [Filing No. 17-2 at 24.] Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration, and a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Lisa B. Martin on March 18, 2014. [Filing No. 17-2 at 42-88.] On October 17, 2014, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Spears was not disabled under the Social Security Act. [Filing No. 17-2 at 36.] The Appeals Council denied Ms. Spears' request for review on October 14, 2015. [Filing No. 17-2 at 2-4.] On December 10, 2015, Ms. Spears filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 405(g), asking this Court to review the denial of her benefits request. [Filing No. 1.]

         I. Standard of Review

         “The Social Security Act authorizes payment of disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income to individuals with disabilities.” Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214 (2002). “The statutory definition of ‘disability' has two parts. First, it requires a certain kind of inability, namely, an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. Second it requires an impairment, namely, a physical or mental impairment, which provides reason for the inability. The statute adds that the impairment must be one that has lasted or can be expected to last . . . not less than 12 months.” Id. at 217.

         When an applicant appeals an adverse benefits decision, this Court's role is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). Because the ALJ “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008), this Court must afford the ALJ's credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong, ” Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

         The ALJ must apply the five-step inquiry set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), evaluating the following, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently [un]employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the [Commissioner]; (4) whether the claimant can perform [her] past work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.

Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted) (alterations in original). “If a claimant satisfies steps one, two, and three, [she] will automatically be found disabled. If a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then [she] must satisfy step four. Once step four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.” Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).

         After Step Three, but before Step Four, the ALJ must determine a claimant's RFC by evaluating “all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009). In doing so, the ALJ “may not dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling.” Id. The ALJ uses the RFC at Step Four to determine whether the claimant can perform his own past relevant work and if not, at Step Five to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e), (g). The burden of proof is on the claimant for Steps One through Four; only at Step Five does the burden shift to the Commissioner. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

         If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits “is appropriate only where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).

         II. Relevant Background

         Ms. Spears was forty-five years old on her alleged disability onset date. [Filing No. 17-2 at 34.] After receiving her GED and attending trade school, Ms. Spears was a union construction worker helping to build high rise buildings. [Filing No. 17-2 at 48.] Specifically, she insulated heaters and air conditioners for seventeen years. [Filing No. 17-2 at 49-50.] ¶ 2009, Ms. Spears fell thirteen feet, landed on her head, and was in a drug-induced coma for eight weeks. [Filing No. 17-2 at 54.] She testified at the hearing before the ALJ that as a result, her balance is off, she has been told she will have brain damage her whole life, and doctors have recommended that she get a walker. [Filing No. 17-2 at 55-57.]

         Using the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the Social Security Administration in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ ultimately concluded that Ms. Spears is not disabled. [Filing No. 17-2 at 36.] The ALJ found as follows:

• At Step One of the analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Spears meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2010, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged ...

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