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Posey v. Berryhill

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

March 27, 2017

DAWN M. POSEY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ENTRY ON JUDICIAL REVIEW

          TANYA WALTON PRATT, JUDGE

         Plaintiff Dawn M. Posey (“Posey”) requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), denying her applications for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423(d) (the “Act”), and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3). For the following reasons, the Court REMANDS the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On November 16, 2011, Posey filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging a disability onset date of March 1, 2007, due to cervical, thoracic, and lumbar degenerative disc disease, diverticulitis, history of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (“MRSA”) infection, obesity, anxiety, and depression. (Filing No. 14-2 at 17.) Her claims were initially denied on June 11, 2012, and again on reconsideration on October 24, 2012. Id. Posey filed a written request for a hearing on December 18, 2012. Id. A hearing was held on March 19, 2014, before Administrative Law Judge Mark Ziercher, who concluded a supplemental hearing was required with the assistance of a medical expert. Id. at 105. The supplemental hearing was held on July 7, 2014, before Administrative Law Judge D. Lyndell Pickett (the “ALJ”). Id. at 17. Posey was present and represented by counsel, Stacy Burton Crider. Id. A vocational expert, Jeannie Deal (the “VE”), appeared by telephone and testified at the hearing. Id. On July 17, 2014, the ALJ denied Posey's applications for DIB and SSI. Id. at 14-28. Following this decision, Posey requested review by the Appeals Council on August 4, 2014. Id. at 13. On October 29, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Posey's request for review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. Id. at 2-4. On December 3, 2015, Posey filed this action for judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Filing No. 1.)

         Posey was thirty-seven (37) years old at the time of her alleged onset date. She has a high school education and past relevant work as a medical assistant, warehouse working, and receptionist. Upon application for social security benefits, and on subsequent appeals, Posey alleged disability based on cervical, thoracic, and lumbar degenerative disc disease, diverticulitis, history of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection, obesity, anxiety, and depression. Posey's relevant medical evidence as set forth in the parties' briefs is not disputed, therefore, the Court incorporates by reference the factual and medical background detailed in the parties' briefs (SeeFiling No. 17 and Filing No. 18), but will articulate specific facts as needed in the “Discussion” section.

         II. DISABILITY AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under the Act, a claimant may be entitled to DIB or SSI only after she establishes that she is disabled. Disability is defined as the “inability 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). In order to be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent him from doing not only her previous work but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled despite her medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment that meets the durational requirement, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelve month duration requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         If the claimant's impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the impairments on the Listing of Impairments, then her residual functional capacity will be assessed and used for the fourth and fifth steps. Residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is the “maximum that a claimant can still do despite his mental and physical limitations.” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 675-76 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); SSR 96-8p). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At the fifth and final step, it must be determined whether the claimant can perform any other work in the relevant economy, given her RFC and considering her age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). The claimant is not disabled if she can perform any other work in the relevant economy.

         The combined effect of all the impairments of the claimant shall be considered throughout the disability determination process. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B). The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps; it then shifts to the Commissioner for the fifth step. Young v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992).

         Section 405(g) of the Act gives the court “power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In reviewing the ALJ's decision, this Court must uphold the ALJ's findings of fact if the findings are supported by substantial evidence and no error of law occurred. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). “Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. Further, this Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008). While the Court reviews the ALJ's decision deferentially, the Court cannot uphold an ALJ's decision if the decision “fails to mention highly pertinent evidence, . . . or that because of contradictions or missing premises fails to build a logical bridge between the facts of the case and the outcome.” Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted).

         The ALJ “need not evaluate in writing every piece of testimony and evidence submitted.” Carlson v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 180, 181 (7th Cir. 1993). However, the “ALJ's decision must be based upon consideration of all the relevant evidence.” Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994). The ALJ is required to articulate only a minimal, but legitimate, justification for his acceptance or rejection of specific evidence of disability. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004).

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ first determined that Posey met the insured status requirement of the Act through March 31, 2011. The ALJ then began the five-step analysis. At step one, the ALJ concluded that Posey had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 1, 2007, the alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ found that Posey had the following severe impairments: cervical, thoracic, and lumbar degenerative disc disease, diverticulitis, history of MRSA infection, obesity, anxiety, and depression. The ALJ also found that Posey suffered from medically determinable impairments of headaches and hypertension, but these two impairments were not severe. At step three, the ALJ concluded that ...


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