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Eaton v. Colvin

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

August 10, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         On November 5, 2015, Plaintiff Dennis Eaton filed a complaint in this Court which was reassigned to the undersigned on May 1, 2017.[1] Eaton is seeking review of the final decision of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for social security disability benefits [DE 1]. The matter is fully briefed and ripe for decision [DE 17; DE 25; DE 28]. For the reasons stated below, the Court remands this matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. FACTS

         Eaton filed applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) on August 3, 2011, [2] alleging an onset date of July 2009, which was later amended to June 1, 2011. Eaton must establish disability on or before June 30, 2013, in order to be entitled to DIB. Eaton contends that he is unable to work because he suffers from severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), emphysema, and a collapsed lung. X-rays and CT scans demonstrate that Eaton has large bullae (air pockets) caused by smoking and areas of scarring caused by welding fumes.[3] R. at 226-27, 309, 344-45, 354, 406, 434-35, 474-76, 578. Eaton's pulmonary function tests confirm that he has restrictive airway disease with air trapping and compromised ability to exhale. R. at 325-27, 346-47, 364-380, 480. In the Summer of 2012, Eaton's primary care physician, Francis Ruzicka, M.D., and treating pulmonologist, Emad Botros, M.D., opined that Eaton's COPD and lung issues would cause Eaton to be distracted from work more than fifteen percent of a workday, would require Eaton to take at least four (and up to ten) unscheduled breaks during a workday, and would allow Eaton to sit for only two hours and stand/walk for less than two hours total in a workday. R. at 389-94. Both doctors believed that Eaton could never lift anything over ten pounds, and only rarely lift something less than ten pounds. Id.

         Eaton's applications were denied initially in November 2011 and on reconsideration in March 2012. On December 3, 2013, Eaton and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified during a hearing held before Administrative Law Judge Wayne Ritter (“ALJ”). Eaton testified that he had previously worked as an order picker, industrial cleaner, and welder. Most recently, he worked for a pizza restaurant taking telephone orders, but he could not perform the job because of his coughing attacks. Eaton indicated that despite trying to stop smoking on many occasions, he was a heavy smoker until finally quitting in August 2013. However, he testified to experiencing no improvements after smoking cessation. Eaton explained that his medical problems cause him to experience tightening of the chest, fatigue, dizziness, and coughing attacks resulting in non-cardiac chest pains. As a result, he sleeps only three to four hours at night and must lie down for about two to four hours during the day. Eaton indicated that his breathing symptoms are exacerbated by the weather, environmental irritants, and exertion. Eaton explained that he has been advised by his doctors not to bend, lift overhead, or lift more than ten pounds due to the nodules on his lungs which could rupture. Eaton testified that he must take breaks when trying to complete household chores and that he must use an Albuterol nebulizer every three to four hours throughout the day (with each time taking roughly fifteen to twenty minutes to complete). Eaton explained that he has days where he is totally incapacitated, which means that he must stay in bed due to a lack of energy and coughing fits. Even on a good day, Eaton can suffer up to fifteen coughing fits that last for approximately five to fifteen minutes each.

         The VE testified that based strictly on the (relevant) hypothetical posed to him (which offered an assigned residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[4] of medium work, limited by no climbing of ladders, ropes, scaffolds, ramps and stairs, and avoiding moderate exposure to extreme heat/cold, humidity, pulmonary irritants, heights, hazards, and moving machinery), Eaton would not be able to perform his past work, but could perform unskilled work as an office clerk, laundry worker, and stock clerk. The VE confirmed that, generally speaking, a person cannot maintain competitive work if he would be off-task more than ten percent of the workday or if he needed unscheduled work breaks. R. at 60-61. The VE also acknowledged that based on the coughing fits exhibited by Eaton during the administrative hearing, those episodes would render Eaton off-task for more than ten percent of the time. Id.

         The ALJ issued a decision on April 24, 2014, denying Eaton disability benefits and concluding that Eaton was not disabled under the Social Security Act because he was able to perform other work in the national economy (step 5). The Appeals Council then denied Eaton's request for review on September 25, 2015, making the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). Eaton seeks review of the Commissioner's decision, thereby invoking this Court's jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).


         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).

         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 the ALJ's findings. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 888 (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).


         Disability and supplemental insurance 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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