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Willis v. Berryhill

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

August 1, 2017

SHERRY A. WILLIS, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Sherry Willis appeals the Social Security Administration's decision to deny her application for disability benefits. An administrative law judge found that Willis was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Willis raises a number of challenges to this determination, but I conclude that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence.


         Willis applied for disability benefits alleging disability beginning in September 2012. [A.R. at 39.][2] Willis previously filed applications for disability benefits in February 2011, but on September 13, 2012, an ALJ found that Willis was not disabled, and Willis did not appeal that decision. [A.R. at 39.] As such, the issue of Willis's disability prior to September 13, 2012 is barred by res judicata. 20 C.F.R. § 404.957(c)(1).

         Willis was 48 years old at the time of her hearing before the ALJ. [A.R. at 48.] Willis last worked in January 2011 as a certified nursing assistant. [Id. at 498.] While working at her last job, a patient in a wheelchair ran over her right foot in January 2011. [Id. at 396-397.] Willis suffers from several physical and mental health issues, including an injury to her right foot, knee osteoarthritis, and psychological disorders. [Id. at 110.]

         In recent years, Willis received medical treatment from a variety of sources. In 2011, after her foot injury, Dr. Thomas McGill, an orthopedic specialist, treated Willis's foot until June 2011, when he determined that Willis was at maximum medical improvement. [Id. at 389-398.] Starting in April 2012, when Willis complained of further foot and knee pain, nurse practitioner Susan Grace treated Willis. [Id. at 407-420.] In August 2012, Willis started seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Prasad Babu, who assessed a mood disorder and an impulse control disorder, while ruling out bipolar disorder. [Id. at 489.] In December 2012, Dr. Gary Durak, a psychologist, examined Willis and assigned a Global Assessment of Functioning score of 55. [Id. at 503.] In January 2013, Dr. Ralph Inabnit examined Willis's knee and foot, diagnosing osteoarthritis. [Id. at 505-512.] Dr. Inabnit also conducted a neurological examination of Willis, though he did not identify any mental disorders. [Id. at 509.] In April 2013, Dr. James Hartson performed a left knee replacement surgery on Willis. [Id. at 537, 553.] In June 2014, Dr. Inabnit examined Willis again after she complained of persistent back and knee pain. [Id. at 699-707.]

         At the hearing in front of the ALJ in June 2014, Willis testified that her knee pain had worsened since her first hearing before an ALJ. [Id. at 111-112.] Willis testified that, while she can sit without pain, she experiences pain in her foot when she stands up. [Id. at 114-115.] Willis testified that she does not use a cane or assistive device, except for a TENS unit, which uses electrical currents to relieve muscle pain. [Id. at 116.] However, Willis also testified that she was in near-constant pain. [Id. at 116.] To cope with the pain, Willis takes Tramadol. [Id. at 117.] Further, Willis testified that she can shop for groceries, although she is sometimes anxious while doing so. [Id. at 120, 122.] She also attends her son's basketball and football games, if she feels up to it. [Id. at 131.] Willis has a history of alcohol abuse but testified at the hearing that she had not drank alcohol during the three months leading up to the hearing. [Id. at 129.]

         The ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. The ALJ found that Willis met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act and that Willis did not engage in substantial gainful activity since September 14, 2012, her amended alleged onset date. [A.R. at 42.] The ALJ next concluded that Willis has the following severe impairments: lumbago, status post left total knee replacement, status post remote right foot fracture, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, and alcohol dependence in early remission. [Id.] At the next step in the process, the ALJ determined that Willis's impairments or combination of impairments do not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments. [Id. at 42-44.] As required, the ALJ next found that Willis has the following residual functional capacity:

[She can] perform sedentary work . . . except that the claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, she can occasionally balance, stoop and crouch, and she can tolerate occasional; exposure to extreme cold, but she can never kneel or crawl she can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, she can never operate foot controls, she should avoid all exposure to unprotected heights and dangerous moving mechanical parts, and she is limited to work that can be performed on even terrain and nonslippery surfaces. She is further limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks involving only simple work related decisions and routine workplace changes, work tasks which do not involve directing others, abstract thought or planning, work tasks which can be performed at a flexible pace, i.e., no quotas, involving only occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors, no tandem tasks or teamwork, and no direct interaction with the public.

[Id. at 44.] At the final stage in the five step process, the ALJ concluded that considering Willis's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Willis can perform, and therefore Willis was not disabled. [Id. at 48-49.]


         For starters, it's important to keep in mind that judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited. If an ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, then they must be sustained. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). “The ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, but must provide a ‘logical bridge' between the evidence and his conclusions.” Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 474 (7th Cir. 2009).

         First, Willis argues the ALJ erred by ignoring Willis's reliance on a walker in rendering his RFC and hypothetical to the vocational expert. [DE 15 at 10-11.] Willis argues that this error is harmful because it eliminates some of the jobs the vocational expert testified Willis could perform. [Id. at 11.] But the ALJ did consider her use of a walker and cited substantial evidence to determine that she didn't need it. For example, the ALJ noted that “Dr. Inabnit observed that the claimant used a walker, but that she was also ambulatory without a walker.” [A.R. at 46.] Willis says that “overestimates” Inabnit's statement. [DE 15 at 11.] I don't see how. Here's what Dr. Inabnit said in his treatment notes: “[Willis] could walk in the office without the walker, left that out of the room today. She did okay with that in ambulation.” [A.R. at 696, 704.] He went on to state that Willis's gait “was slow and purposeful without the walker in the office.” [Id. at 697.] As the ALJ pointed out, Dr. Inabnit also noted that Willis has normal motor strength and sensory functioning throughout. [Id. at 46] The ALJ in no way overstated or otherwise misrepresented what Dr. Inabnit said in his treatment notes-notes that were taken just a few weeks after the hearing before the ALJ.

         What's more, Willis has failed to introduce any evidence that contradicts Inabnit's observations. Indeed, Willis's own testimony at the hearing belies the claim that she now makes on appeal; she testified that she was not using a cane or walker at the time of the hearing. [Id. at 116.] She was asked point blank whether she uses “any canes or assistive devices” and she responded “Just the TENS unit.” [Id. at 115-16.] Willis also testified at the hearing that she can walk three blocks before she needs assistance. [Id. at 115, 128.] Willis's citation to a hospital record suggesting she struggled to walk without a walker is not persuasive, as it was produced about a year prior to Dr. Inabnit's observation, which the ALJ chose to credit. [Id. at 600-601.] In any event, “[a]n ALJ is not required to address every snippet of information from the medical records that might be inconsistent with the rest of the objective medical ...

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