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Workman v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

August 15, 2017




         The Plaintiff, Tracey G. Workman, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits. He claims that he is unable to work due to a combination of physical and mental conditions.


         In May 2013, the Plaintiff filed a claim for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning in April 2011. The agency responsible for making disability determinations on behalf of the Commissioner denied the Plaintiff's claim initially and upon reconsideration. The Plaintiff sought appeal of those determinations and filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). In November 2014, the Plaintiff, who was represented by an attorney, appeared and testified before the ALJ. The ALJ also heard testimony from a vocational expert (VE). In February 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision in which she concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled because he was capable of performing a number of jobs within the national economy based upon his conditions. The Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. In May 2016, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. The Plaintiff seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential evaluation process to be used in determining whether the claimant has established a disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v); see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) (defining a disability under the Social Security Act as being 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”); id. § 423(d)(2)(A) (requiring an applicant to show that his “impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy”). The first step is to determine whether the claimant is presently engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA). Here, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff was not engaged in SGA, so she moved to the second step, which is to determine whether the claimant had a “severe” impairment or combination of impairments.

         An impairment is “severe” if it significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's severe impairments were a history of cervical and lumbar spine surgeries and asthma, all of which significantly limited his ability to perform basic work activities. But the ALJ also concluded that the Plaintiff's mental impairment of major depressive order was not a severe impairment because it caused no more than minimal limitations to his ability to perform basic work-related activities. The ALJ explained that Dr. Boen's assessment of the Plaintiff, wherein he found that he suffered from “major depression, recurrent and mild, ” was given great weight, but his GAF score of 55 was not. (R. 19.) In making this determination, the ALJ assessed the four broad functional areas that the regulations set out for evaluating mental disorders and determined that the Plaintiff experienced only mild limitations in the first three-activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence, or pace-and no episodes of decompensation, which rendered his mental impairments nonsevere.

         At step three, the ALJ considered whether the Plaintiff's impairments, or combination of impairments, met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed by the Administration as being so severe that it presumptively precludes SGA. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff's asthma impairment and back disorder did not meet or equal a listed impairment.

         Next, the ALJ was required, at step four, to determine the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC), which is an assessment of the claimant's ability to perform sustained work-related physical and mental activities in light of his impairments. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, which meant lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently, standing or walking for approximately two hours and sitting for approximately six hours per eight-hour workday, and occasionally stooping, crouching, and climbing ramps and stairs. There were no mental limitations included in the RFC. In making these findings, the ALJ gave great weight to Dr. Onamusi's consultative medical opinion finding that the Plaintiff could perform light work and the opinions by Disability Determination Services (DDS) medical consultants Dr. Dodson and Dr. Brill. Additionally, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's own statements about his impairments were not entirely credible, and thus did not influence the RFC determination.

         At the final step of the evaluation, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. However, because of the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform. These jobs included addresser, telephone order clerk, and charge account clerk. These jobs were typically unskilled and performed at the sedentary level.


         The decision of the ALJ is the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denies a request for review. Liskowitz v. Astrue, 559 F.3d 736, 739 (7th Cir. 2009). A 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 is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It must be “more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). 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, and the decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an inadequate discussion of the issues. Id.

         The ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, but the ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009). If the Commissioner commits an error of law, remand is warranted without regard to the volume of ...

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