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Sells v. Berryhill

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

August 2, 2017

TIMOTHY A. SELLS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO Judge United States District Court

         Plaintiff 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.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Timothy 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' functional capacity.

         The ALJ 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.

         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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