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Gardener v. Berryhill

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

May 12, 2017

CHERLYN K. GARDENER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Plaintiff 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.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Cherlyn 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).

         After a 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.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Because 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).

         It is 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).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Disability 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 following order:

1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity;
2. Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment;
3. Whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one listed in ...

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