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Howard v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

January 23, 2017

STEVEN R. HOWARD, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          RUDY LOZANO, United States District Court Judge

         This matter is before the Court for review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income to Plaintiff Steven R. Howard, Jr. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and this case is REMANDED to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings consistent with this opinion pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. section 405(g).

         BACKGROUND

         In March of 2010, Steven R. Howard, Jr. (“Howard”), filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. section 401 et seq., and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. section 1381, et. seq. Howard alleged that his disability began on February 1, 2010. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied his initial applications and also denied his claims upon reconsideration.

         Howard requested a hearing, and on August 4, 2011, Howard appeared with his attorney at an administration hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Melody Paige. Testimony was provided by Howard, the claimant's wife, Rhianna Howard (“Rhianna”), and vocational expert (“VE”) Thomas A. Gusloff. On September 15, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying Howards's claim, finding him not disabled because he could perform his past relevant work as a wire harness assembler and buffing machine operator. (Tr. 29.)

         Howard requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision, but that request was denied. Accordingly, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a). Howard has initiated the instant action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. section 405(g).

         Howard was born on August 23, 1977, and was 32 years old on the alleged disability onset date of February 1, 2010. (Tr. 19, 228.) He completed high school and specialized job training to obtain a commercial driver's license (“CDL”). (Tr. 255.) His past relevant work includes employment as a truck driver, material handler, buffing machine operator, mixing machine operator, grounds keeper, and wire harness assembler. (Tr. 29.) The medical evidence has been set forth in detail in both the ALJ's decision, Howard's opening brief, and the statement of the case provided in support of the Commissioner. There is no reason to repeat it all in detail here, although pertinent details are discussed below as needed.[1]

         DISCUSSION

         Review of Commissioner's Decision

         This Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny social security benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” Id. Substantial evidence is defined as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (citation omitted). In determining whether substantial evidence exists, the Court shall examine the record in its entirety, but shall not substitute its own opinion for the ALJ's by reconsidering the facts or reweighing the evidence. See Jens v. Barnhart, 347 F.3d 209, 212 (7th Cir. 2003). While a decision denying benefits need not address every piece of evidence, the ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and his conclusion that the claimant is not disabled. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).

         As a threshold matter, for a claimant to be eligible for DIB or SSI benefits under the Social Security Act, the claimant must establish that he is disabled. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) and 1382(a)(1). To qualify as being disabled, 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). To determine whether a claimant has satisfied this statutory definition, the ALJ performs a five-step evaluation:

Step 1: Is the claimant performing substantially gainful activity? If yes, the claim is disallowed; if no, the inquiry proceeds to Step 2.
Step 2: Is the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments “severe” and expected to last at least twelve months? If not, the claim is disallowed; if yes, the inquiry proceeds to Step 3.
Step 3: Does the claimant have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the severity of an impairment in the SSA's Listing of Impairments, as described in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1? If yes, then claimant is automatically disabled; if not, then the inquiry proceeds to Step 4.
Step 4: Is the claimant able to perform his past relevant work? If yes, the claim is denied; if no, the inquiry proceeds to Step 5, where the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner.
Step 5: Is the claimant able to perform any other work within his residual functional capacity in the national economy? If yes, the claim is denied; if no, the claimant is disabled.

See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v) and 416.920 (a)(4)(i)-(v); see also Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 n.8 (7th Cir. 1994).

         In this case, the ALJ found that Howard had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 1, 2010, his alleged onset date. (Tr. 21.) The ALJ found that Howard suffered from the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, hypertension, obesity, syncopal episodes or seizures of unknown etiology, and headaches. (Id.) However, the ALJ found that Howard did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). (Tr. 22.) The ALJ made the following Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) determination:

[T]he claimant has the [RFC] to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except: the claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; the claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, and balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; the claimant must avoid even moderate exposure to hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights; and, the claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat and extreme cold.

(Tr. 23.) Based upon Howard's RFC, the ALJ found that Howard is able to perform his past relevant work as a wire harness assembler and buffing machine operator as they are generally and normally performed in the national economy. (Tr. 29-30.)

         Howard believes that the ALJ committed several errors requiring reversal when she failed to properly apply the law regarding the listing of impairments, failed to properly apply the evidence to her conclusions, improperly weighed evidence and made her own medical decisions, did not include all necessary restrictions or impairments when assessing the claimant's RFC, and did not support her decision with substantial evidence.

         Relevant Medical Evidence and Facts

         Dr. ...


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