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Kirkling v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Terre Haute Division

June 28, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Jane Magnus-Stinson, Chief Judge

         Plaintiff Elliott Kirkling applied for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act (“SSA”) on December 4, 2012. [Filing No. 14-5 at 2.] Mr. Kirkling also applied for supplemental security income on November 26, 2012. [Filing No. 14-5 at 4.] Mr. Kirkling alleged a disability onset date of May 15, 2011. [Filing No. 14-5 at 2.] His applications were denied initially on February 4, 2013, [Filing No. 14-4 at 6; Filing No. 14-4 at 15], and upon reconsideration on June 13, 2013, [Filing No. 14-4 at 25; Filing No. 14-4 at 32]. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Christopher Helms held a hearing on April 8, 2015, [Filing No. 14-2 at 33], and issued a decision on May 15, 2015, concluding that Mr. Kirkling was not disabled as defined by the SSA, [Filing No. 14-2 at 10-25]. The Appeals Council denied review on August 23, 2016, rendering the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision subject to judicial review. [Filing No. 14-2 at 2.] Mr. Kirkling then filed this civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), asking the Court to review the denial of benefits. [Filing No. 1.]


         Standard of Review

         “The Social Security Act authorizes payment of disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income to individuals with disabilities.” Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214 (2002). “The statutory definition of ‘disability' has two parts. First, it requires a certain kind of inability, namely, an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. Second, it requires an impairment, namely, a physical or mental impairment, which provides reason for the inability. The statute adds that the impairment must be one that has lasted or can be expected to last . . . not less than 12 months.” Id. at 217.

         When an applicant appeals an adverse benefits decision, this Court's role is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id.(quotation omitted). Because the ALJ “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008), this Court must afford the ALJ's credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong, ” Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

         The ALJ must apply the five-step inquiry set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), evaluating the following, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently [un]employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the [Commissioner]; (4) whether the claimant can perform [his] past work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.

Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted) (alterations in original). “If a claimant satisfies steps one, two, and three, [he] will automatically be found disabled. If a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then [he] must satisfy step four. Once step four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.” Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).

         After Step Three, but before Step Four, the ALJ must determine a claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) by evaluating “all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009). In doing so, the ALJ “may not dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling.” Id. The ALJ uses the RFC at Step Four to determine whether the claimant can perform his own past relevant work and if not, at Step Five to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e), (g). The burden of proof is on the claimant for Steps One through Four; only at Step Five does the burden shift to the Commissioner. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

         If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits “is appropriate only where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).



         Mr. Kirkling was born in 1980 and has at least a high school education with previous work experience as a restaurant worker and packing line worker. [Filing No. 14-2 at 24.][1] Using the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ issued an opinion on May 15, 2015, determining that Mr. Kirkling was not entitled to receive disability benefits or supplemental security income. [Filing No. 14-2 at 10-26.] The ALJ found as follows:

• At Step One, the ALJ found that Mr. Kirkling had not engaged in substantial gainful activity[2] since the alleged onset date. [Filing No. 14-2 at 15.]
• At Step Two, the ALJ found Mr. Kirkling suffered from the following severe impairments: “status post 2003 car accident resulting in a major dysfunction of the joints - bilateral knees, legs and left foot droop with residual effects from a traumatic brain injury.” [Filing No. 14-2 at 15.]
• At Step Three, the ALJ found that Mr. Kirkling did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. [Filing No. 14-2 at 17.]
• After Step Three but before Step Four, the ALJ found that Mr. Kirkling had the RFC to perform “sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except the claimant could lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand/walk for a total of two hours in an eight-hour workday and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday; sit for 10 minutes at one time and stand for 30 minutes at one time; never climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds, kneel or crawl; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; occasionally balance; occasionally stoop and crouch; avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and vibration and avoid even moderate exposure to wetness, moving mechanical parts and unprotected heights. The claimant is also limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks; occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers and the public and the claimant is limited to tolerating few changes in a routine work setting (i.e. essentially doing the same job from day to day).” [Filing No. 14-2 at 17-18.]
• At Step Four, the ALJ found that Mr. Kirkling is unable to perform any past relevant work. ...

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