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Spurlock v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

February 1, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on a Complaint [DE 1], filed by Plaintiff Trisha Spurlock on December 2, 2015, and an Opening Brief [DE 20], filed by Plaintiff on May 25, 2016. Plaintiff requests that the Court reverse the July 17, 2014 decision of the Administrative Law Judge denying her claim for disability insurance benefits and make a direct award of benefits or, alternatively, remand for further proceedings. On August 31, 2016, the Commissioner filed a response, and Plaintiff filed a reply on September 15, 2016. Because the ALJ did not properly evaluate Dr. Kelly Hird's medical opinions under the treating physician rule, the Court grants Plaintiff's request for remand.


         Plaintiff filed for disability insurance benefits on September 1, 2011. Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing, which was held on June 6, 2013, and presided over by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Victoria A. Ferrer. Present at the hearing were Plaintiff, Plaintiff's attorney, and an impartial vocational expert.

         After the hearing, the ALJ sent Plaintiff for a psychological consultative examination with Michael Stone, Psy.D. Following proffer of Dr. Stone's report and medical opinion to Plaintiff, Plaintiff requested a supplemental hearing to question Dr. Stone and requested that the ALJ issue a subpoena to Dr. Stone requiring him to appear and testify at the supplemental hearing. Both requests were granted, with Dr. Stone to appear telephonically. At the supplemental hearing, Dr. Stone did not appear despite multiple attempts to contact him via telephone. The ALJ sent Plaintiff for another psychological consultative examination, which was conducted by John Brauer, Psy.D.

         The ALJ issued a written decision on July 17, 2014, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled based on the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2014.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 15, 2010, the alleged onset date.
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: chronic migraines and chronic headaches; minor motor seizures; dementia, NOS; and adjustment disorder with mixed emotional features.
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she can frequently climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; she can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; she should avoid concentrated extreme cold, extreme heat and vibration; she can work in environments with moderate noise intensity; she can never work with hazardous machines with moving mechanical parts or in high exposed places; and she can occasionally work on computers. She is able to perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks; to understand remember, and carry out simple instructions; to adapt to occasional changes in the work setting; and to make decisions frequently.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work.
7. The claimant was born [in 1981] and was 29 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date.
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English.
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills.
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from September 15, 2010, through the date of this decision.

(AR 17-26). Plaintiff then sought review before the Agency's Appeals Council, which denied her request on October 1, 2015, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. On December 2, 2015, Plaintiff filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) for review of the Agency's decision.

         The parties filed forms of consent to have this case assigned to a United States Magistrate Judge to conduct all further proceedings and to order the entry of a final judgment in this case. This Court thus has jurisdiction to decide this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The Social Security Act authorizes judicial review of the final decision of the agency and indicates that the Commissioner's factual findings must be accepted as conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Thus, a court reviewing the findings of an ALJ will reverse only if the findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ has applied an erroneous legal standard. See Briscoe v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence consists of ‚Äúsuch relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as ...

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