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Pulliam v. Berryhill

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

March 21, 2017

LEA DANIELLE PULLIAM, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PAUL R. CHERRY MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on a Complaint [DE 1], filed by Plaintiff Lea Danielle Pulliam on August 31, 2015, and Plaintiff's Brief [DE 16], filed by Plaintiff on March 10, 2016. Plaintiff requests that the April 21, 2014 decision of the Administrative Law Judge denying her claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income be reversed and remanded for further proceedings. On May 26, 2016, the Commissioner filed a response, and Plaintiff filed a reply on June 9, 2016. For the following reasons, the Court grants Plaintiff's request for remand.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on October 15, 2012, alleging disability since January 1, 2011. The claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff filed a written request for hearing, and on February 11, 2014, Administrative Law Judge Mario G. Silva (“ALJ”) held a hearing. In attendance at the hearing were Plaintiff, Plaintiff's attorney, and an impartial vocational expert. On April 21, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision denying benefits, making the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2016.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2011, the alleged onset date.
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), discoid lupus erythematosus, Raynaud's syndrome, peripheral artery disease, and contracture of the right index and middle fingers.
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to lift and carry up to 10 pounds occasionally and lighter objects frequently, stand and/or walk for about 6 hours of an 8-hour workday, and sit for a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. The claimant should never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds and never crawl, but she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch. The claimant is limited [to] occasional overhead reaching with her right dominant upper extremity. The claimant is limited to frequent handling with her left upper extremity and occasional handling with her right upper extremity. The claimant is limited to frequent fingering with her left upper extremity and occasional fingering with her right upper extremity. The claimant has a clawed feature of the right dominant extremity involving the right index and middle fingers and is unable to fully extend these fingers. The claimant should avoid all exposure to extreme cold and even moderate exposure to wetness and humidity.
6. The claimant has no past relevant work.
7. The claimant was born [in 1969] and was 41 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 an issue because the claimant does not have past relevant work.
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 January 1, 2011, through the date of this decision.

(AR 16-22).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, leaving the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. Plaintiff filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 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. Therefore, this Court has jurisdiction to decide this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005) (quoting Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003)).

         A court reviews the entire administrative record but does not reconsider facts, re-weigh the evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See Boiles v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 421, 425 (7th Cir. 2005); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000); Butera v. Apfel, 173 F.3d 1049, 1055 (7th Cir. 1999). Thus, the question upon judicial review of an ALJ's finding that a claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is not whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled, but whether the ALJ “uses the correct legal standards and the decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Roddy v. Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2010); Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 734-35 (7th Cir. 2006); Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004)). “[I]f the Commissioner commits an error of law, ” the Court may reverse the decision “without regard to the volume of evidence in support of the factual findings.” White v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 369, 373 (7th Cir. 1999) (citing Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997)).

         At a minimum, an ALJ must articulate his analysis of the evidence in order to allow the reviewing court to trace the path of his reasoning and to be assured that the ALJ considered the important evidence. See Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002); Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 307 (7th Cir. 1995); Green v. Shalala, 51 F.3d 96, 101 (7th Cir. 1995). An ALJ must “‘build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [the] conclusion' so that [a reviewing court] may assess the validity of the agency's final decision and afford [a claimant] meaningful review.” Giles v. Astrue, 483 F.3d 483, 487 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Scott, 297 F.3d at 595)); see also O'Connor-Spinner, 627 F.3d at 618 (“An ALJ need not specifically address every piece of evidence, but must provide a ‘logical bridge' between the evidence and his conclusions.”); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 889 (7th Cir. 2001) (“[T]he ALJ's analysis must provide some glimpse into the reasoning behind [the] decision to deny benefits.”).

         DISABILITY STANDARD

         To be eligible for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that she suffers from a “disability” as defined by the Social Security Act and regulations. The Act defines “disability” as an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). To be found disabled, the claimant's impairment must not only prevent her from doing her previous work, but considering her age, education, and work experience, it must also prevent her from engaging in any ...


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