United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division
OPINION AND ORDER
THERESA L. SPRINGMANN JUDGE.
Plaintiff, Lynda Sue Sorg, seeks review of the final decision
of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits.
She claims that she is unable to work due to a combination of
physical and mental conditions.
November 2012, the Plaintiff filed a claim for disability
insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning in June
2012. The state agency responsible for making disability
determinations on behalf of the Commissioner denied the
Plaintiff's claim initially and upon reconsideration. The
Plaintiff sought appeal of those determinations and filed a
request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(ALJ). In February 2014, the Plaintiff, who was represented
by an attorney, appeared and testified at a hearing before
ALJ Patricia Melvin. The ALJ also heard testimony from a
vocational expert (VE). In June 2014, the ALJ issued a
written decision, in which she concluded that the Plaintiff
was not disabled because she was capable of performing work
as a cashier, retail marker, or sales attendant. The
Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision by the
Appeals Council. In September 2015, the Appeals Council
denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final
decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.981. The Plaintiff seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C.
Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential
evaluation process to be used in determining whether the
claimant has established a disability. See 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v); see also 42 U.S.C.
§ 423(d)(1)(A) (defining a disability under the Social
Security Act as being 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”); id. § 423(d)(2)(A) (requiring
an applicant to show that his “impairments are of such
severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work
but cannot, considering his age, education, and work
experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful
work which exists in the national economy”). The first
step is to determine whether the claimant is presently
engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA). Here, the ALJ
found that the Plaintiff was not engaged in SGA, so she moved
to the second step, which is to determine whether the
claimant had a “severe” impairment or combination
impairment is “severe” if it significantly limits
the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic
work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). The ALJ
determined that the Plaintiff's severe impairments were
obesity and osteoarthritis of the right knee. The ALJ relied
on the December 19, 2012, consultative exam of Dr. David
Ringel, which assessed arthritis of the right knee. (R.
252-55.) The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff's
neuropathy, which was a residual condition of chemotherapy
treatment for rectal cancer, was not a severe impairment
because it only minimally affected her ability to engage in
gainful employment. The ALJ noted at the hearing on February
25, 2014, that the Plaintiff complained about neuropathy
beginning in November 2013, but that the Plaintiff had not
mentioned it at a February 7, 2014, follow-up visit for her
cancer treatments. The attending physician had instead noted
that the Plaintiff was active and able to carry on all
pre-disease performance without restriction. Additionally,
any neuropathy had not met the duration requirement, and the
efficacy of treatment, which had started shortly before the
hearing, was not yet known. The ALJ also considered the
Plaintiff's mental impairments of panic disorder with
agoraphobia and depression, but found that they were also
nonsevere. Specifically, the ALJ relied on the Report of
Psychological Evaluation completed by the state agency
psychologist, Andrew Miller, on December 27, 2012. (R.
256-59.) Out of the four broad functional areas that are set
out in the regulations for evaluating mental disorders, the
Plaintiff only experienced limitations in one: the area of
concentration, persistence, or pace. The limitations in that
area were described as mild.
three, the ALJ considered whether the Plaintiff's
impairments, or combination of impairments, met or medically
equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed by the
Administration as being so severe that it presumptively
precludes SGA. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App.
1. The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff's osteoarthritis
of the right knee did not meet or equal a listed impairment.
the ALJ was required, at step four, to determine the
Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC), which is
an assessment of the claimant's ability to perform
sustained work-related physical and mental activities in
light of her impairments. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1
(July 2, 1996). The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff had the
RFC to lift or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten
pounds frequently, could stand or walk for six hours in an
eight-hour day, as well as sit for six hours in an eight-hour
day. The Plaintiff could never climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds, and only occasionally climb ramps and stairs,
crouch, or crawl. However, she could kneel frequently. In
making these findings, the ALJ considered the Plaintiff's
testimony regarding her symptoms related to her right knee
but did not find entirely credible her statements concerning
the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of those
symptoms. The ALJ noted that during the Plaintiff's
consultative exam, she was able to get on and off the exam
table with no trouble, her gait was completely normal, and
she needed no assistive devices. She also had good range of
motion in her right knee. The ALJ acknowledged the
Plaintiff's testimony that she had right knee pain that
was aggravated by prolonged standing. The ALJ gave great
weight to the Plaintiff's testimony that she could carry
fifteen to twenty pounds. She also gave great weight to the
state agency mental consultant's opinion that the
Plaintiff did not have a severe mental impairment, which she
stated was consistent with the psychological consultant's
observations. The ALJ assigned no weight to the functional
assessment (for less than sedentary range of exertion)
completed by Dr. Shalini on November 1, 2013, stating that it
was based on the Plaintiff's reports and problems within
the last twelve months, while more recent notes from Fort
Wayne Medial Oncology and Hematology noted that the Plaintiff
was fully active and able to carry on all pre-disease
performance without restriction.
the Plaintiff had no past relevant work, at the final step of
the evaluation, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff could
perform work as a cashier, a retail marker, or a sales
attendant. These jobs were typically performed at the light
level, and were unskilled.
decision of the ALJ is the final decision of the Commissioner
when the Appeals Council denies a request for review.
Liskowitz v. Astrue, 559 F.3d 736, 739 (7th Cir.
2009). A 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 is “such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It must be
“more than a scintilla but may be less than a
preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d
836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). 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).
the duty of the ALJ to weigh the evidence, resolve material
conflicts, make independent findings of fact, and dispose of
the case accordingly. Perales, 402 U.S. at 399-400.
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, and the decision cannot stand if it lacks
evidentiary support or an inadequate discussion of the
is not required to address every piece of evidence or
testimony presented, but the ALJ must provide a
“logical bridge” between the evidence and the
conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th
Cir. 2009). If the Commissioner commits an error of law,
remand is warranted without regard to the volume of ...