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Ammerman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

March 27, 2017

NANCY BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Lisa Ammerman suffers from back pain, neck pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, anxiety, and panic attacks. She has unsuccessfully applied for social security income three times, most recently on September 27, 2012, when an Administrative Law Judge found her capable of sedentary work and not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (A.R. at 19-38.[2]) Ammerman argues that the ALJ's decision must be reversed because: (1) he erred in finding in Step Three that her impairments did meet or equal Listing 1.04 (disorders of the spine); (2) he failed to accord weight to the opinions of several medical providers; and (3) his opinion is not supported by substantial evidence and contains serious factual mistakes and omissions. (DE 16 at 11-23.) Because I agree that the ALJ erred at Step Three and failed to accord appropriate weight to several medical opinions, the ALJ's decision is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.


         At the time of her hearing before the ALJ on May 13, 2014, Ammerman was thirty-five years old and lived in a mobile home on her parents' property with her 16-year-old son. (A.R. at 46, 49.) She had a tenth grade education and was not working. (Id. at 49, 52.) She had very minimal prior work experience and had last held a job more than a decade before, when she had a paper route. (Id. at 53.) Notwithstanding her health problems, Ammerman was able to care for herself without help (but with some pain) and do household chores (again with some pain and on her own pace). (Id. at 46, 58.) With the help of her son and her mother, she also was able to look after a dog, four rabbits, and several horses, and she could occasionally drive, garden, ride horses, and mow the grass with a riding lawn mower. (Id. at 46, 58-60.)

         Ammerman applied for supplemental security income on May 31, 2012, alleging an onset date of August 8, 2009, when she was involved in a car accident so serious that it resulted in her brother's death. (Id. at 19, 43, 426.) After her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, she requested a hearing before an ALJ. (Id. at 19.) The ALJ held a hearing and subsequently issued an opinion that went through the ordinary five-step analysis and concluded that Ammerman was not disabled. (Id. at 19-38.) Most relevant to this appeal, the ALJ found at Step Two and Step Three that Ammerman suffered from two severe impairments, degenerative joint disease of the right shoulder and disorders of the spine, but that she does not have a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart. P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 26.) In addition, the ALJ found at Step Four that Ammerman had the residential functional capacity to perform “sedentary work” as that term is defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a), but with the following limitations:

she can lift, carry, push, or pull 10 pounds occasionally and five pounds frequently; stand and walk a total of two hours during an eight-hour workday; sit for a total of six hours during an eight-hour workday; occasionally stoop, balance, crouch, crawl, kneel, and climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and should avoid work hazards such as unprotected heights or unguarded, dangerous moving machinery.


         The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at 1-4.) Ammerman timely sought review of that decision by filing this case.


         An ALJ's decision should be affirmed so long as the ALJ applied the correct legal standard and substantial evidence supports the decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         Ammerman first argues that the ALJ erred at Step Three because he failed to articulate why Ammerman's back problems do not meet or equal Listing 1.04 and because his conclusion was not supported by substantial evidence. (DE 16 at 11-15.) A claimant whose impairment meets or equals one found in the Listing of Impairments is presumptively eligible for benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). “In considering whether a claimant's condition meets or equals a listed impairment, an ALJ must discuss the listing by name and offer more than a perfunctory analysis of the listing.” Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         I agree with Ammerman. To meet or equal the criteria of Listing 1.04, a spine disorder must result in the compromise of a nerve root or the spinal cord and must be accompanied by the following characteristics:

A. Evidence of nerve root compression characterized by neuro-anatomic distribution of pain, limitation of motion of the spine, motor loss (atrophy with associated muscle weakness or muscle weakness) accompanied by sensory or reflex loss and, if there is involvement of the ...

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