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RUSSELL v. Berryhill

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

March 31, 2017

HIRAM J. RUSSELL, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          TANYA WALTON PRATT, United States District Court Judge

         Plaintiff Hiram J. Russell (“Russell”) requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), denying his application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). For the following reasons, the Court AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         On March 12, 2013, Russell filed an application for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of December 27, 2012, due to chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Russell's claim was initially denied on April 12, 2013, and upon reconsideration on June 14, 2013. Russell filed a written request for hearing on August 16, 2013. On December 12, 2014, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Dwight D. Wilkerson (the “ALJ”). Russell was present and represented by counsel. William R. Harpool, an impartial vocational expert, appeared and testified at the hearing. On January 8, 2015, the ALJ denied Russell's application for DIB. Following this decision, Russell requested review by the Appeals Council. On May 13, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Russell'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. On June 10, 2015, Russell filed this action for judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         B. Factual Background

         At the time of his alleged disability onset date, Russell was 59 years old, and he was 61 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. Russell reported receiving a ninth grade education and obtaining his GED when he was 18 years old. Prior to the onset of his alleged disability, Russell had been employed as an equipment operator and laborer, operating bucket trucks and cranes and carrying heavy steel.

         On December 27, 2012 (Russell's alleged disability onset date), Russell presented to the Schneck Medical Center (“Schneck”) in Seymour, Indiana, after experiencing progressive fatigue. He had been experiencing fatigue for about eight to twelve months, but in the previous week, his fatigue significantly worsened. Russell's wife reported that he had been pale for six to seven months. Russell reported that he had not been able to do his outdoor physical labor for employment for a number of months because he did not have energy. He attributed this to depression, for which he was being treated by his primary care physician with no improvement. On the day Russell reported to Schneck, he was experiencing a high fever of 102 degrees for two days, hot flashes, and generalized weakness. Blood tests revealed that Russell had a hemoglobin count of 3.8. Russell was diagnosed with severe anemia (Filing No. 17-7 at 3-4).

         After being hospitalized overnight at Schneck, Russell was transferred to Indiana University Health's University Hospital (“University Hospital”) in Indianapolis, Indiana where he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (“leukemia”) after a bone marrow biopsy and examination of the bone marrow. Russell reported that, immediately prior to presenting to Schneck, his symptoms were acutely worse. He complained of throbbing in his ears, which he claimed worsened when he stood or sat up. Once at University Hospital, Russell was admitted to the inpatient hematology service. He received blood transfusions and medication to address his anemia and leukemia. Russell was given his first dose of chemotherapy while at University Hospital, and afterward, he reported that he felt much better and stronger without fatigue. He was counseled regarding his ongoing treatment plan, which included chemotherapy. Russell was discharged from University Hospital on January 4, 2013, in stable condition and with no complaints. Upon discharge, he had a follow-up oncology appointment scheduled with Dolores C. Olivarez, M.D. (“Dr. Olivarez”) on January 7, 2013, to address and treat his leukemia (Filing No. 17-7 at 4-15, 44-47).

         Russell began his out-patient chemotherapy and oncology treatment with Dr. Olivarez at Schneck on January 9, 2013. Russell received six cycles of chemotherapy, with the last cycle being administered on May 30, 2013. Dr. Olivarez continued to monitor Russell through a series of follow-up appointments. Dr. Olivarez's treatment notes record that Russell was tolerating the chemotherapy well, that he was feeling better and better over time, and his conditions were objectively improving. Dr. Olivarez noted that Russell's vital signs and weight were stable, and he was looking well. At the time of his May 1, 2013 visit with Dr. Olivarez, Russell's hemolysis had completely resolved. At the follow-up appointment on September 11, 2013, Dr. Olivarez noted that Russell's hemolysis was resolved, his last blood transfusion was required on February 1, 2013, there was no need for continued treatment, and Russell was clinically stable. Although his leukemia was in remission, Russell sometimes complained of having difficulties with concentration and memory issues, which was thought to be related to his anemia and chemotherapy. Dr. Olivarez opined that these concentration and memory issues would resolve themselves as more time passed from the last round of chemotherapy (Filing No. 17-7 at 76-86, 94-98; Filing No. 17-8 at 2-3, 6-11).

         Approximately six months prior to his alleged disability onset date, Russell presented to St. Vincent Physician Network in July 2012, where his blood tests indicated abnormal results. It appears that no follow-up was undertaken. In September 2012, it was noted that Russell presented for “chronic anxiety? mild depression due to not working.” (Filing No. 17-7 at 101.) Russell returned to St. Vincent Physician Network in September 2013 for a rash covering parts of his body and bug bites. Id. at 105. Russell presented again in February 2014 (almost a year after chemotherapy was completed) to be evaluated for dementia because he had concerns about his memory and focus, and he felt unsafe operating a crane. However, upon examination, all signs and symptoms were normal. Id. at 107-08. On March 13, 2014, Russell presented for follow-up regarding his memory issues, and a Folstein Mini Mental Examination was conducted, which produced normal results. Id. at 110-12.

         On June 9, 2014, Russell presented to Daniel R. Anderson, M.D. (“Dr. Anderson”) with complaints of a skin lesion and memory issues. Dr. Anderson noted a normal mood and repetitive questions. On September 10, 2014, Russell returned for a follow-up with Dr. Anderson, and his conditions were noted as unchanged (Filing No. 17-8 at 14-17, 22-25).


         Under the Act, a claimant may be entitled to DIB only after he establishes that he 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 his physical or mental limitations prevent him from doing not only his previous work but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering his 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, he is not disabled despite his 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, he 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 his Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) will be assessed and used for the fourth and fifth steps. 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 his past relevant work, he 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 ...

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