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Harris-Glowacki v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

February 15, 2017

DARLA HARRIS-GLOWACKI, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN, CHIEF JUDGE

         The Plaintiff, Darla Harris-Glowacki, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). The Plaintiff claims that she would be unable to maintain substantial gainful employment due to limitations brought about by various physical and mental impairments.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In October 2012, the Plaintiff filed a claim for DIB, alleging disability beginning on March 15, 2012. The claim was denied 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 April 2014, the Plaintiff, who was represented by an attorney, appeared and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert (VE) also testified. On April 22, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision, in which she concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled because she was capable of performing unskilled sedentary work in such jobs as addresser, taper, paper printed circuit layout, surveillance monitor, and hand mounter. The Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, which denied review. The Plaintiff 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 obesity, fibromyalgia, right knee osteoarthritis and medial meniscus derangement, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. The ALJ also discussed some of the Plaintiff's other physical impairments, but determined that they were not severe.

         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 impairments did not meet Listing 12.04 for depressive, bipolar, and related disorders, or Listing 12.06 for anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders. She reasoned that the Plaintiff's restrictions in each of the “paragraph B” criteria were moderate, but not marked. Additionally, the record did not contain evidence that the Plaintiff had experienced any episodes of decompensation, which had been of extended duration.

         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 frequently lift twenty pounds and occasionally lift ten pounds, [1] and that she could stand or walk for two hours in an eight-hour day, as well as sit for six hours in an eight-hour day. Additionally, the Plaintiff could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, and crawl, but should never crawl or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The Plaintiff was to also avoid hazardous machinery and unprotected heights. To address the limitations caused by the Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ concluded that she was limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks and could respond appropriately to supervisors, co-workers, and the public only on an occasional basis.

         In making these findings, the ALJ considered the Plaintiff's testimony regarding the symptoms caused by her impairments. The ALJ acknowledged that the Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms. However, she did not find credible the Plaintiff's allegations related to her fibromyalgia and her PTSD and depression. With respect to the limitations caused by her physical impairments, the ALJ gave great weight to the opinion of the Plaintiff's treating specialist, and some weight to the state agency medical consultant's opinion. For the mental impairments, the ALJ considered the opinions of two treating specialists and three state agency specialists. The ALJ gave little weight to the opinions of the treating psychiatrist and treating psychologist, who had assigned severe functional limitations and opined that the Plaintiff was not capable of sustaining competitive work on a regular and continuing basis. The ALJ assigned more restrictions than those found by the psychological consultants, but fewer than those found by the consultative examiner, whose opinion the ALJ afforded little weight.

         Although the Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as a hairstylist, at the final step of the evaluation, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff could perform other work in unskilled sedentary occupations that existed in significant numbers in the national economy.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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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