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Lyons v. Berryhill

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

May 10, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Bernard J. Lyons (“Lyons”) 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, 42 U.S.C. § 423(d) (“the Act”). For the following reasons, the Court reverses in part the final decision of the Commissioner and remands this action for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On March 14, 2013, Lyons filed an application for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2006, due to lower back pain, spinal stenosis, and poor leg circulation. (Filing No. 8-2 at 17.) His claims were initially denied on April 22, 2013, and again on reconsideration on July 25, 2013. Id. Lyons filed a written request for a hearing on September 17, 2013. Id. On October 7, 2014, a video hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Roxanne Fuller (the “ALJ”) who presided over the hearing from Falls Church, Virginia. Id. Lyons was present in Indianapolis, Indiana and represented by counsel, Stacy Burton Crider. Id. A vocational expert, James J. Radke (the “VE”), also appeared and testified at the hearing. Id. On December 18, 2014, the ALJ denied Lyons' application for SSI. Id. Following this decision, Lyons requested review by the Appeals Council on December 29, 2014. Id. at 13. On February 9, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Lyons' 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 April 26, 2016, Lyons filed this action for judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). (Filing No. 1.)

         Lyons was fifty-three (53) years old at the time of his alleged onset date. He has a high school equivalent education and more than thirty years of past relevant work experience as a truck driver and union business representative. Lyons' 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 (See Filing No. 10 and Filing No. 11), but will articulate specific facts as needed in the “Background” and “Discussion” sections.

         On December 17, 2009, Lyons complained of lower back pain and numbness in his hips. (Filing No. 8-8 at 85.) On December 23, 2009, he underwent a magnetic resonance imaging (“MRI”) scan of the lumbar spine. The MRI revealed multilevel spondylosis and slight retrolisthesis of L5 on S1. Id. at 76. It also showed some Schmorl's nodal endplate degenerative changes and some mildly increased signal within the anterior aspect of the innerspace at ¶ 3-4. Id. The MRI also revealed minor left lateral recess narrowing at ¶ 1-L2, as well as a mild lateral recess narrowing at ¶ 2-L3. Id. It further showed, among other things, broad-based disc herniation with moderate right lateral recess narrowing, moderately severe left lateral recess narrowing and moderately severe central stenosis at ¶ 3-L4, as well as severe facet arthritis, severe central stenosis and severe bilateral lateral recess narrowing at ¶ 4-L5. Id. Lyons had a suspected annular tear with resultant edema, rather than disc infection. Id.

         On December 20, 2009, Lyons again complained of back spasms. From October through December 2009, Lyons received care for his lower back pain, neck pain, and hip numbness through Kirkling Chiropractic. (Filing No. 8-10 at 79-85.) To combat the pain, Lyons also took Norco prescribed by his family physician for a few months in 2009. (Filing No. 8-2 at 42.) Lyons did not take pain medication during 2010 and there is no medical evidence that he suffered from back pain in 2010. On December 28, 2010, three days prior to the date last insured, Lyons complained of abdominal pain, but not back pain. (Filing 8-8 at 27-28.) Upon examination, Lyons was able to stand from a chair and climb onto an examination table. Id. at 28. On January 31, 2011, about a month after the date last insured, Lyons continued to complain of abdominal pain, but not back pain. Id. at 25.

         On September 27, 2012, almost twenty-one months after the last insured date, Lyons sought specialized care for radiating back pain at IU Medical Group, asserting he suffered from back pain for approximately five years. (Filing No. 8-7 at 17.) Upon examination, Shashank Dave, DO opined that Lyons suffered from pain in limb, lumbar spinal stenosis, neuropathic pain, musculoskeletal pain, and chronic pain syndrome. Id. at 18. On September 20, 2013, Franciscan Spine Center recommended a spinal surgery after reviewing the 2009 lumbar MRI and examining Lyons. (Filing No. 8-10 at 71.)

         During the ALJ hearing, on October 7, 2014, Lyons testified that he suffered from severe back pain since 2005 and his condition did not improve with surgery or spinal injections. (Filing No. 8-2 at 35-38.) Lyons estimated that he was unable to lie down for more than two hours, sit for forty-five minutes, stand for fifteen minutes or walk for more than twenty minutes without pain. Id. at 39. Lyons also testified that he stopped working in 2005 because of the excessive back pain and lower leg pains. Id. at .35. He twice attempted to return to work as a truck driver because he needed insurance coverage, but his back pain prevented him from performing the job duties of climbing the flatbed of semi-trucks and chaining down cargo. Id. at 36, 42-43.

         The VE testified at the administrative hearing about Lyons' work history and current capacity to work. The VE stated that Lyons' past relevant work as a truck driver amounted to medium, semi-skilled work and Lyons' past work as a union business representative was sedentary as defined but performed as light, skilled work. Id. at 46. The ALJ presented to the VE a hypothetical individual of the same age, education, and work experience as Lyons who could perform light work as defined in the regulations, but limited to occasional climbing of ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional balancing, stooping, crouching, kneeling, and crawling; occasional exposure to moving mechanical parts, operating a motor vehicle, and exposure to unprotected heights. Id. at 47. The VE testified that such an individual could not perform the truck driving position but could perform the union representative as it is normally performed and as Lyons performed it. Id. The ALJ then adjusted the original hypothetical, limiting the individual to sedentary work but with the same non-exertional limitations. Id. The VE testified that such a person could perform the union representative job as it is defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). Id. The VE further testified that no job in the economy could be sustained if the individual would be off task twenty percent of the day or absent from work four times a month. Id.


         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 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 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, ...

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