United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
CHERLYN K. GARDENER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
DEGUILIO JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
Cherlyn K. Gardener is appealing the denial of her claim for
supplemental security income benefits. She argues that she
has been unable to work since 2010, and that the Commissioner
of Social Security's decision to the contrary is not
supported by substantial evidence. For the following reasons,
the Court finds that reversal is required. The administrative
law judge relied on testimony from a vocational expert to
find that other jobs existed that Ms. Gardener could perform
despite her limitations, but the administrative law
judge's questions to the vocational expert did not
accurately reflect all of the limitations he ultimately found
Ms. Gardener to have. The ALJ also failed to address apparent
contradictions between Ms. Gardener's limitations and
some of the jobs the vocational expert identified. The Court
therefore remands for further proceedings.
Gardener filed a claim for supplemental security insurance
benefits in August 2010, contending that she was unable to
work primarily due to fibromyalgia and chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease. At the administrative hearing, she
testified to limitations that were quite severe, including
that she was unable to lift even a pound, could not walk more
than 100 feet, and could not sit or stand more than ten
minutes. The ALJ found that these extreme limitations were
not supported by the medical records or by the opinions of
the doctors, so he found that Ms. Gardener was capable of
performing medium work with the following limitations:
“only occasional climbing, balancing, stooping,
kneeling, crouching, crawling; no concentrated exposure to
temperature extremes, humidity, fumes, dusts, odors, gases,
and other pulmonary irritants; no work at unprotected
heights; and she cannot operate hazardous moving
machinery.” (R. 18).
previous hearing on Ms. Gardener's claim, the ALJ had
found that Ms. Gardener was still capable of performing her
past work, but the Appeals Council remanded that decision for
further consideration. On remand, the ALJ adopted the same
residual functional capacity assessment, but proceeded to
step five to determine whether Ms. Gardener could perform
other jobs. Based on a hypothetical provided by the ALJ, the
vocational expert identified three jobs that a person with
the stated limitations could perform: dining room attendant,
conveyor tender, and prep cook. The ALJ accepted that
testimony, and thus found that Ms. Gardener was not disabled
and denied her claim for benefits. The Appeals Council denied
Ms. Gardener's request for review, so Ms. Gardener filed
this suit seeking review of that decision.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
the Appeals Council denied review, the Court evaluates the
ALJ's decision as the final word of the Commissioner of
Social Security. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702,
707 (7th Cir. 2013). This Court will affirm the
Commissioner's findings of fact and denial of disability
benefits if they are supported by substantial evidence.
Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008).
Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). This evidence must be “more
than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.”
Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir.
2007). Thus, even if “reasonable minds could
differ” about the disability status of the claimant,
the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision as long
as it is adequately supported. Elder v. Astrue, 529
F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).
the duty of the ALJ to weigh the evidence, resolve material
conflicts, make independent findings of fact, and dispose of
the case accordingly. Perales, 402 U.S. at 399-400.
In this substantial-evidence determination, the Court
considers the entire administrative record but does not
reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of
credibility, or substitute the Court's own judgment for
that of the Commissioner. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v.
Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003).
Nevertheless, the Court conducts a “critical review of
the evidence” before affirming the Commissioner's
decision. Id. An ALJ must evaluate both the evidence
favoring the claimant as well as the evidence favoring the
claim's rejection and may not ignore an entire line of
evidence that is contrary to his or her findings.
Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir.
2001). Consequently, an ALJ's decision cannot stand if it
lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the
issues. Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539. Ultimately, while
the ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or
testimony presented, the ALJ must provide a “logical
bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions.
Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).
benefits are available only to those individuals who can
establish disability under the terms of the Social Security
Act. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir.
1998). Specifically, the claimant must be unable “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). The Social
Security regulations create a five-step sequential evaluation
process to be used in determining whether the claimant has
established a disability. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). The steps are to be used in the
1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial
2. Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment;
3. Whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one
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