United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division
KATHY L. THOMPSON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
THERESA L. SPRINGMANN JUDGE
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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. §
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 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,
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
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.
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.
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.