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Etter v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

February 17, 2017

JOCELYN ETTER Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ENTRY ON THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Hon. Jane Magnus-Stinson, Chief Judge.

         Jocelyn Etter applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on December 19, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of December 31, 2006. [Filing No. 9-5 at 2.] After a series of administrative proceedings and appeals, including a hearing on September 19, 2014 before Administrative Law Judge James R. Norris (the “ALJ”), [Filing No. 9-2 at 44-61], the ALJ issued a finding on October 17, 2014 that Ms. Etter was not eligible for disability insurance benefits, [Filing No. 9-2 at 32-39]. Ms. Etter requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision and on December 16, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Etter's request. [Filing No. 9-2 at 2-6], rendering that decision the final decision of the Defendant, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Ms. Etter then filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), requesting that the Court review the Commissioner's decision.

         The Court referred the matter to the Magistrate Judge, who issued a Report and Recommendation on September 23, 2016. [Filing No. 19.] In the Report and Recommendation, the Magistrate Judge found that Ms. Etter failed to demonstrate reversible error in the ALJ's determination that Ms. Etter is not disabled, and recommended that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision that Ms. Etter is not entitled to disability insurance benefits. [Filing No. 19.] Ms. Etter timely filed an Objection to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation, which is presently pending before the Court. [Filing No. 22.]

         I.

         Standard of Review

         When the Court refers a dispositive matter to the Magistrate Judge - as it did here - a party may object to the Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation and “[t]he district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to. The district judge may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.” Fed. R Civ. P. 72(b)(3).

         In conducting its de novo review of the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation, the Court will review this matter as it does other social security appeals. Specifically, the Court is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). Because the ALJ “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008), this Court must afford the ALJ's credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong, ” Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotation omitted).

         The ALJ must apply the five-step sequential inquiry set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) to determine:

(1) whether the claimant is currently [un]employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the [Commissioner]; (4) whether the claimant can perform her past work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.

Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted) (alterations in original). “If a claimant satisfies steps one, two, and three, she will automatically be found disabled. If a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then she must satisfy step four. Once step four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.” Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).

         After Step Three, but before Step Four, the ALJ must determine a claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) by evaluating “all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009). In doing so, the ALJ “may not dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling.” Id. The ALJ uses the RFC at Step Four to determine whether the claimant can perform her own past relevant work and, if not, at Step Five to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e), (g). The burden of proof is on the claimant for Steps One through Four; only at Step Five does the burden shift to the Commissioner. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

         If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits “is appropriate only where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).

         II.

         Background

         Ms. Etter was thirty years old at the time of her application for disability insurance benefits on December 19, 2012. [Filing No. 9-5 at 2.] She has past work experience as a glass fabricator, a receptionist, and an office manager. [Filing No. 9 -2 at 58-59; Filing No. 9-6 at 52.] Ms. Etter claims she is disabled based on a variety of impairments, which will be discussed as necessary below.[1]

         Using the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ denied Ms. Etter's application for disability insurance benefits in an October 17, 2014 opinion. The ALJ found as follows:

• At Step One of the analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Etter had not engaged in substantial gainful activity[2] since the date she applied for supplemental security income. [Filing No. 9-2 at 34.]
• At Step Two, the ALJ found that Ms. Etter suffered from severe impairments including: spinal stenosis with dual sac compression and mild L5 radiculopathy, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and polycystic kidneys. [Filing No. 9-2 at 34.]
• At Step Three, the ALJ found that Ms. Etter did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments. The ALJ concluded that Ms. Etter had the RFC to perform “less than a full range of light work.” Specifically, the ALJ found that Ms. Etter can “lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; can sit for six hours and stand and/or walk for six hours for a total of eight hours in a workday, with normal breaks. She cannot climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, and must avoid excessive industrial vibration or excessive cold and workplace hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery.” [Filing No. 9-2 at 34-35.]
• At Step Four, the ALJ found that Ms. Etter could perform her past relevant work as a receptionist and office manager, both of which require a sedentary level of exertion. [Filing No. 9-2 at 39.]
• Finally, the ALJ did not need to consider Step Five, because he had already concluded that Ms. Etter could perform her past relevant work as a receptionist and ...

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