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Roberts v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

September 7, 2017

REGINA L. ROBERTS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security, Administration, Defendant.

          DECISION ON COMPLAINT FOR JUDICIAL REVIEW

          Debra McVicker Lynch, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Regina L. Roberts applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging disability since January 2011. She later amended her alleged disability onset date to December 12, 2012. Acting for the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration following a hearing held on December 23, 2014, an administrative law judge (ALJ) found that Ms. Roberts is not disabled. The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision on June 7, 2016, rendering the ALJ's decision for the Commissioner final. Ms. Roberts timely filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the Commissioner's decision.

         The court will first describe the legal framework for analyzing disability claims and the standard of review and then address Ms. Roberts's assertions of error.

         Standard for Proving Disability

         To prove disability, a claimant must show she is 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) (DIB benefits); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (SSI benefits).[1] Ms. Roberts is disabled if her impairments are of such severity that she is not able to perform the work she previously engaged in and, if based on her age, education, and work experience, she cannot engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) has implemented these statutory standards by, in part, prescribing a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         Step one asks if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if she is, then she is not disabled. Step two asks whether the claimant's impairments, singly or in combination, are severe; if they are not, then she is not disabled. A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 1520(c). The third step is an analysis of whether the claimant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or medically equal the criteria of any of the conditions in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The Listing of Impairments includes medical conditions defined by criteria that the SSA has predetermined are disabling, so that if a claimant meets all of the criteria for a listed impairment or presents medical findings equal in severity to the criteria for the most similar listed impairment, then the claimant is presumptively disabled and qualifies for benefits. Sims v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 424, 428 (7th Cir. 2002).

         If the claimant's impairments do not satisfy a listing, then her residual functional capacity (RFC) is determined for purposes of steps four and five. RFC is a claimant's ability to do work on a regular and continuing basis despite her impairment-related physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. At the fourth step, if the claimant has the RFC to perform her past relevant work, then she is not disabled. The fifth step asks whether there is work in the relevant economy that the claimant can perform, based on her age, work experience, education, and RFC; if so, then she is not disabled.

         The individual claiming disability bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). If the claimant meets that burden, then the Commissioner has the burden at step five to show that work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, given her age, education, work experience, and functional capacity. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2).

         Standard for Review of the ALJ's Decision

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's (or ALJ's) factual findings is deferential. A court must affirm if no error of law occurred and if the findings are supported by substantial evidence. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence means evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id. The standard demands more than a scintilla of evidentiary support, but does not demand a preponderance of the evidence. Wood v. Thompson, 246 F.3d 1026, 1029 (7th Cir. 2001).

         The ALJ is required to articulate a minimal, but legitimate, justification for the decision to accept or reject specific evidence of a disability. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004). The ALJ's decision need not address every piece of evidence, but the ALJ cannot ignore an entire line of evidence that undermines his conclusions, and he must provide sufficient detail to allow a reviewing court to trace the path of his reasoning. Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 592 (7th Cir. 2012).

         Analysis

         I. The ALJ's Sequential Findings

         Ms. Roberts was 45 years old on the alleged disability onset date, and 47 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. The ALJ found that she met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2012, and she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since that date. At steps two and three, he found that Ms. Roberts has severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, and obesity, but no impairment or impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment. The ALJ also determined that Ms. Roberts had several non-severe impairments, including COPD, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome status post trigger finger surgery, and depression.

         In the RFC, the ALJ limited Ms. Roberts to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) “with only occasional lifting of 20 pounds; frequent, as opposed to constant, lifting of 10 pounds; standing for six hours in an eight-hour workday, sitting for six hours in an eight-hour workday; only occasional stair climbing, stooping, balancing, kneeling, crouching, crawling; and only occasional exposure to hot and cold temperature extremes, humidity, and vibrations.” (R. 25). With this RFC, and based on the opinion of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ decided that Ms. Roberts is capable of performing her past relevant work as a cashier and retail store manager. Accordingly, he decided at step four that Ms. Roberts is not disabled. The ALJ did not reach step five.

         II. Ms. Roberts's ...


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