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Thompson v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

February 1, 2017

KATHY L. THOMPSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN JUDGE

         The Plaintiff, Kathy L. Thompson, 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.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This case has a procedural history spanning over a decade. In September 2004, the Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), alleging an onset date of December 20, 1998. (R. 553.) The next month, the Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). (R. 515.) The Plaintiff's claims for SSI and DIB were denied in January 2005 and upon reconsideration in March 2005. (R. 44-48, 51-57.) Thereafter, a hearing was held before the ALJ in November 2005, who issued an unfavorable decision in February 2006. (R. 563.) Upon review before the Appeals Council (“AC”) in December 2006, the AC vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded because the recording of the hearing was inaudible. (R. 540, 548.)

         A hearing was held before a different ALJ in April 2007, who issued an unfavorable decision in September 2007. (R. 19-33, 523, 710-30, 803.) The Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's 2007 decision by the AC, which denied review in August 2008, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Then, the Plaintiff sought judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) in this District. In September 2009, Magistrate Judge Cosbey reversed the ALJ's decision for not adequately considering the Plaintiff's doctor's opinions regarding her mental limitations, as well as non-severe impairments. (R. 791-92.) The Magistrate remanded the case for further administrative proceedings.

         In January 2010, the ALJ held a hearing pursuant to the Magistrate Judge's remand order. In September 2010, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision in which he found that the Plaintiff was not disabled through March 13, 2008, but was disabled after that date. (R. 741-53.) The Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's 2010 decision by the AC, which denied review in March 2012, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Again, the Plaintiff sought judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) in this District, but in February 2013, the parties jointly stipulated to remand pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (R. 953.) In March 2014, the AC reversed the ALJ and directed him to “reevaluate the claimant's mental impairments at step two and continue through the sequential evaluation process; reassess the claimant's mental/physical RFC and obtain supplemental vocational expert (“VE”) testimony to assist in determining what jobs exist in significant numbers for the claimant.” (R. 950-52.) The AC remanded the case for further administrative proceedings.

         In August 2014, the Plaintiff appeared for a hearing before the ALJ, who issued an unfavorable decision in September 2014. The ALJ again found that the Plaintiff was not disabled through March 13, 2008, but was disabled after that date. (R. 916-27.) The Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's 2014 decision from the AC, which denied review in August 2015, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. The Plaintiff now seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         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 that the Plaintiff's severe impairments were degenerative arthritis of the right knee, bilateral ankle pain and instability status post surgeries, and obesity, all of which caused more than minimal limitation to her ability to perform work activities. But the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff's mental impairments of depression and anxiety/panic disorder were not severe impairments because they caused no more than minimal limitations in her ability to perform basic work-related activities. In accordance with the AC's Remand Order, the ALJ explained that Dr. Link's assessment of the Plaintiff, wherein he found that she was “functioning at a moderate level of impair[ment], ” was not given great weight. (R. 920.) First, Dr. Link's statements were not based on medical sources, but on the Plaintiff's subjective statements. Second, the Plaintiff's inability to “attend for less than 15 minutes” was not contradicted by Dr. Link's report itself, which showed that the Plaintiff had fair attention capacity. (Id.) Third, Dr. Link's use of the words “might” and “moderate” to describe the Plaintiff's limitations were not controlling. Indeed, Dr. Link's own description of those activities that the Plaintiff could undertake, coupled with additional evidence in the record, [1] suggested that the use of those words did not elevate the Plaintiff's mental conditions to severe. Finally, the GAF score of 59 did not elevate the Plaintiff's mental impairment to a moderate limitation because it took into account “psychological, social, and occupational functioning, ” the latter of which Dr. Link noted were more impaired. (R. 921.) Of the four broad functional areas that the regulations set out for evaluating mental disorders, the Plaintiff experienced only mild limitations in the first three- activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence, or pace-and no episodes of decompensation, which rendered her mental impairments nonsevere.

         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 arthritis of the right knee, bilateral ankle pain and instability status post surgeries, and obesity 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 perform sedentary work, which meant only occasional stooping, balancing, and crouching. The Plaintiff could not perform work that required climbing, crawling, or kneeling, and could not do work outside in cold or wet weather. In making these findings, the ALJ incorporated by reference the weighting of evidence from its 2010 decision. As such, the RFC in the 2014 decision was unchanged from the RFC that the ALJ adopted in his 2010 decision, which meant that there were no mental limitations included in the ultimate RFC. However, the ALJ noted that, even when he gave great weight to Dr. Link's characterization of the Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ's RFC determination remained unchanged. This was so because the Plaintiff's “level of functional limitation [wa]s not associated with an inability to perform all unskilled work” when the RFC included mental impairments.

         At the final step of the evaluation, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. However, because of the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform. These jobs included addresser, document preparer, and charge account clerk. These jobs were typically unskilled and performed at the sedentary level.

         STANDARD ...


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