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Case v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

January 24, 2017

CATHY JO CASE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The Plaintiff, Cathy Jo Case, 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.


         In October 2012, the Plaintiff filed a claim for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning in September 2012. The 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 October 2014, the Plaintiff, who was represented by an attorney, appeared and testified at a video hearing before the ALJ. The ALJ also heard testimony from a vocational expert (VE). In November 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision in which he concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled because she was capable of performing her past relevant work as an accounts receivable clerk and office manager. The Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. In July 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. § 405(g).


         The 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 of impairments.

         An 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, without specifying upon which evidence he relied, that the Plaintiff's severe impairments were degenerative disc disease of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine, and status post fusion surgeries. But the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff's obstructive sleep apnea and migraines were not severe impairments because they only minimally affected her ability to perform basic work-related activities. The ALJ noted that the record was absent of any evidence that the obstructive sleep apnea, for which the Plaintiff was prescribed a CPAP machine, caused any significant functional limitations. As to the migraines, the Plaintiff stated that she had headaches 3-5 times a month in a Headache Questionnaire dated March 18, 2013. (R. 199-211.) However, the ALJ noted that each of the Plaintiff's neurological examinations for headaches was normal (R. 699- 728), and that the Plaintiff's doctor indicated in March 2013 that the Plaintiff's migraines only occurred 1-2 times per month (R. 206-11), which did not support a finding that they were severe. The ALJ also considered the Plaintiff's mental impairment of affective disorder, but found that it too was non-severe. Specifically, the ALJ relied on a Report of Contact completed by the state agency from November 27, 2012, in which the Plaintiff stated that “she is not depressed, but just down because of her physical condition.” (R. 196.) Out of the four broad functional areas that the regulations set out for evaluating mental disorders, the Plaintiff experienced only mild limitations in one category: maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace.

         At step 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 degenerative disc disease and other back conditions did not meet or equal a listed impairment.

         Next, 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 ten pounds occasionally and five pounds frequently, could stand or walk for two hours in an eight-hour day, and sit for six hours in an eight-hour day. The Plaintiff could never climb ladders, kneel, crouch, or crawl, and only occasionally climb stairs, stoop, reach overhead bilaterally, and balance. In making these findings, the ALJ considered the Plaintiff's testimony regarding her symptoms related to fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, scoliosis, and chronic migraines, 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, she could walk on her heels and toes with minimal difficulty, and she needed no assistive devices. She also had normal range of motion, other than a slight limitation of cervical rotation. The ALJ acknowledged the Plaintiff's testimony that her back pain radiated to her lower extremities, but did not consider her alleged fibromyalgia. The ALJ gave great weight to the state agency medical consultants, Dr. Dobson and Dr. Montoya, who stated that the Plaintiff could work at a light exertional level through April 2013 and at the sedentary level after April 2013. Little weight was assigned to the letter from Dr. Watson, the Plaintiff's doctor, dated November 14, 2012, because it was not consistent with the medical evidence of record and merely offered a conclusory opinion. The ALJ also assigned very little weight to the Third Party Function Report authored by the Plaintiff's husband both because he lacked medical training, calling into question the accuracy of his statements, and because he was not a disinterested third party.

         At the final step of the evaluation, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as an Accounts Receivable Clerk and Office Manager. These jobs were typically skilled and performed at the sedentary level.


         The 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).

         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, and the decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an inadequate discussion of the issues. Id.

         The ALJ 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 ...

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