United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
TIMOTHY A. SELLS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
DEGUILIO Judge United States District Court
Timothy Sells believes that he is unable to work due to
chronic back pain. However, the Commissioner of Social
Security denied his claim for disability benefits,
precipitating this appeal. For the following reasons, the
Court finds that the reasons offered for discounting Mr.
Sells' testimony about his limitations and for attaching
little weight to the opinions of his treating physician were
inadequate, so the Court reverses the Commissioner's
decision and remands for further proceedings.
Sells injured his back while at work in 2008, and he
exacerbated his condition in 2011 while trying to shovel
snow. He suffers severe chronic pain in his lower back,
primarily on the right side, and he was diagnosed with
degenerative disk disease of the lumbar spine. He began
seeking treatment for his back pain from Dr. Cynthia
Heckman-Davis in January 2011. He began with conservative
treatment of ibuprofen, muscle spasm relievers, and low back
exercises. When that did not work, he progressed through a
number of additional treatments, including physical therapy,
epidural injections, and a TENS unit, none of which offered
meaningful relief. He also consulted with two different
surgeons, both of whom concluded that surgery would not have
relieved his pain. Thus, Mr. Sells treated his pain with
narcotic pain killers. To maintain his prescription for those
medications, he had to see his doctor regularly and undergo
drug tests, and Dr. Heckman-Davis consistently noted that Mr.
Sells was compliant with his medications. Though the
medication offered some pain relief, Mr. Sells asserts that
he is still unable to sit or stand for more than ten or
twenty minutes at a time before having to change positions or
lay down to relieve his pain. Dr. Heckman-Davis offered a
number of similar restrictions as to Mr. Sells'
concluded, however, that Mr. Sells was not so limited. Though
she found that Mr. Sells' degenerative disk disease was a
severe impairment, the ALJ found that he could still perform
“light work, ” with the condition that he could
sit or stand for up to an hour at a time, after which he
would have to be able to alternate positions for ten minutes,
among various other limitations. Based on testimony from a
vocational expert, the ALJ found that a person with this
residual functional capacity would not be able to perform Mr.
Sells' past work. However, she found that other jobs
existed that Mr. Sells would be able to perform, so she found
that he was not disabled. The appeals council denied Mr.
Sells' request for review, making the ALJ's decision
the final decision of the Commissioner. Mr. Sells filed this
action seeking review of the Commissioner's 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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