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Hudson v. Colvin

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

January 20, 2017

MISTY DAWN HUDSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO JUDGE

         In this case, plaintiff Misty Dawn Hudson appeals the denial of her claim for social security benefits. She argues that an injury she suffered to her lower back left her unable to work, and that the Administrative Law Judge's decision to the contrary is erroneous. For the following reasons, the Court remands this case to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Misty Dawn Hudson worked as a UPS delivery driver for about 13 years, until she injured her lower back on the job in August 2008 while lifting a heavy delivery. After more conservative treatment failed to improve her condition, she underwent spinal surgery in January 2009. The surgery was not successful, though. Besides failing to alleviate Ms. Hudson's back pain, the surgery left her with neurological symptoms including left foot drop and pain radiating into her legs. She then attended physical therapy and work conditioning for much of the rest of the year, with a fair degree of improvement, but she did not improve to the point that she was able to return to her previous job. Due to her continuing symptoms, Ms. Hudson continued seeking treatment. In August 2011, Ms. Hudson had a spinal cord stimulator implanted, and in May 2012, she had another surgery to remove the hardware that had been inserted during her first surgery. She was released from her doctor's care in July 2012.

         In July 2012, Ms. Hudson filed a claim for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, asserting that she became disabled following her injury in 2008. An Administrative Law Judge later held a hearing and issued a decision. She found that Ms. Hudson could perform sedentary work with a number of limitations, and that a sufficient number of jobs existed that a person with Ms. Hudson's limitations could perform, so Ms. Hudson did not qualify as disabled under the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the agency. Ms. Hudson timely filed a complaint seeking judicial review of that decision, and this Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Because the Appeals Council denied review, the Court evaluates the ALJ's decision as the final word of the Commissioner of Social Security. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). This 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 consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). This evidence must be “more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Thus, 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).

         It is 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. Id. An ALJ must evaluate both the evidence favoring the claimant as well as the evidence favoring the claim's rejection and may not ignore an entire line of evidence that is contrary to his or her findings. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001). Consequently, an ALJ's decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues. Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539. Ultimately, while the ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, the ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Disability benefits are available only to those individuals who can establish disability under the terms of the Social Security Act. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998). Specifically, the claimant must be 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Social Security regulations create a five-step sequential evaluation process to be used in determining whether the claimant has established a disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). The steps are to be used in the following order:

1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity;
2. Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment;
3. Whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one listed in ...

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