United States District Court, N.D. Indiana
OPINION AND ORDER
THERESA L. SPRINGMANN JUDGE.
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.
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).
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, 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
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.
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
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.
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 ...