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Barnhill v. Colvin

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

November 14, 2016

Frank Barnhill, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ENTRY REVIEWING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          Hon. Jane Magnus-Stinson, Judge.

         Plaintiff Frank Barnhill applied for disability insurance benefits in December 2012, alleging a disability onset date of March 30, 2012. [Filing No. 13-5 at 2-8.] His application was denied initially and he requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). [Filing No. 13-2 at 9-10; Filing No. 13-4 at 2-5.] ALJ Joan Ho held a hearing on April 15, 2014 and issued a decision on May 2, 2014, concluding that Mr. Barnhill was not entitled to receive benefits. [Filing No. 13-2 at 14-25; Filing No. 13-2 at 32-69.] The Appeals Council denied Mr. Barnhill's request for review on October 9, 2015, making the Commissioner's decision final and subject to judicial review. [Filing No. 13-2 at 2-5.] Mr. Barnhill then filed this action under 42 U.S.C. Section 405(g) asking the Court to review the denial of benefits. [Filing No. 1 at 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. See 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) [W]hether 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 [his] 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, [he] will automatically be found disabled. If a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then [he] 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 her 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[1]

         Mr. Barnhill was forty-two years old when he applied for disability benefits in December 2012. [Filing No. 13-5 at 2.] Mr. Barnhill attended high school through tenth grade and has previously worked as a plumber and service technician. [Filing No. 13-6 at 102-106.] He claims that he became disabled on March 30, 2012. [Filing No. 13-5 at 2.] Mr. Barnhill met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2015. [Filing No. 13-2 at 14.]

         Using the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the Social Security Administration in 20 C.F.R. Section 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ issued an opinion on May 2, 2014 determining that Mr. Barnhill is not disabled. [Filing No. 13-2 at 11-25.] The ALJ found as follows:

• At Step One of the analysis, the ALJ found that Mr. Barnhill had not engaged in substantial gainful activity[2] since the alleged onset date. [Filing No. 13-2 at 16.]
• At Step Two of the analysis, the ALJ found that Mr. Barnhill suffered from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the thoracic and lumbar spine, obstructive sleep apnea, obesity, and major depressive disorder. [Filing No. 13-2 at 17-18.]
• At Step Three of the analysis, the ALJ found that Mr. Barnhill did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. [Filing No. 13-2 at 18-20.]
• After Step Three but before Step Four, the ALJ found that Mr. Barnhill had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
[P]erform light work . . . except that the claimant is able to lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. He can stand and walk approximately six hours of an eight-hour workday and sit approximately six hours of an eight-hour workday. The claimant can occasionally climb stairs and ramps but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch but never crawl. The claimant can perform frequent rotation, flexion, and extension of the neck. He can occasionally perform overhead reaching with the bilateral upper extremities. The claimant can perform frequent feeling with the right (dominant) upper extremity. He must avoid concentrated exposure to excessive vibration and workplace hazards such as dangerous moving machinery and unprotected heights. The claimant is limited to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. He is able to sustain ...

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