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Ritchie v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

September 8, 2017




         The Plaintiff, Marilee J. Ritchie, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied her Social Security Disability benefits and erred by (1) misidentifying her disability and (2) failing to address the merits of her previous applications that she claims were re-opened at lower levels of review.


         A. Procedural Background

         On May 24, 2012, the Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning on June 1, 2007. (R. 124-25.) The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied her claim initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 47-50, 57-59.) On November 4, 2013, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (R. 502.) A vocational expert also testified. (R. 539-44.) On February 18, 2014, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's application for disability benefits, finding she was not disabled during any of the period from her alleged onset of disability, June 1, 2007, through the date her insured status expired on September 30, 2009. (R. 20-28.) On August 20, 2015, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. 6-8.)

         Previously, on January 5, 2009, the Plaintiff had filed a claim for disability, alleging an onset date of June 1, 2007. (R. 103-04.) Her claim was denied on March 3, 2009. (32-34.) Her claim was also denied on reconsideration on April 20, 2009. (R. 36-38.) On May 16, 2011, the Plaintiff filed a second claim for disability as well as a claim for supplemental security income benefits. (R. 110-23.) Both of these claims were denied, on June 14, 2011, and July 15, 2011, respectively. (R. 39-46.) The Plaintiff did not request reconsideration of either decision.

         On October 19, 2015, the Plaintiff filed this claim [ECF No. 1] in federal court against Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

         B. Factual Background

         As of the alleged onset date, June 1, 2007, the Plaintiff was forty-two years old with at least a high school education. (R. 27.) During the prior fifteen years, the Plaintiff had worked as a data entry clerk and as a short order cook. (R. 540.)

         The Plaintiff claims to be disabled due to diabetes mellitus and complications stemming from diabetes mellitus, including diabetic neuropathy. Moreover, from August 2009 until November 2009, the Plaintiff was hospitalized and treated for Fournier's gangrene, an “infection afflicting the lower abdomen/pubic area, and the genitalia, and the perineal and left gluteal region, ” resulting in “multiple surgical debridements and drainages and wound management for severe infection . . . [and she] was treated with wound vacuum-assisted closure therapy and received multiple operations for debridement . . . .” (R. 21.) The Plaintiff also claims that ongoing complications of the gangrene, including the inability to sit for more than ten minutes at a time, a constant dull ache and occasional sharp pains due to the large surgical scar, and incontinence, have rendered her disabled. (R. 25.)


         Disability is defined as the “inability 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). To be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work, but also any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The first step is to determine whether the claimant no longer engages in substantial gainful activity (SGA). Id. In the case at hand, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff was unable to engage in SGA from her alleged onset date, June 1, 2007, to her date last insured, September 30, 2009. (R. 23.)

         In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting her ability to do basic work activities under § 404.1520(c). In this case, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had a severe impairment of diabetes mellitus with peripheral neuropathy during the period of June 1, 2007, her alleged onset date, through September 30, 2009, her date last insured. (R. 24.); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). The ALJ found that this impairment caused more than minimal limitations in the Plaintiff's ability to perform the basic mental and physical demands of work and had lasted for at least twelve months as required under the statute. (R. 24.) The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's Fournier's gangrene was not a severe impairment because it did not meet the twelve-month requirement. (R. 21.)

         Step three requires the ALJ to “consider the medical severity of [the] impairment” to determine whether the impairment “meets or equals one of the [the] listings in appendix 1 . . . .” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant's impairment(s), considered singly or in combination with other impairments, rise to this level, there is a presumption of disability “without considering [the claimant's] age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(d). But, if the impairment(s), either singly or in combination, fall short, the ALJ must proceed to step four and examine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (RFC)-the types of things she can still do physically, despite her limitations-to determine whether she can perform “past relevant work, ” § 4004.1520(a)(4)(iv), or whether the claimant can “make an adjustment to other work” given the claimant's “age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the listings in Appendix 1 and that she had the RFC to perform a range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), except that she could lift, carry, push and pull up to ten pounds; stand or walk approximately two hours per eight-hour workday; sit approximately six hours per eight-hour workday, with normal breaks; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and must avoid frequent exposure to unprotected heights. (R. 24.)

         After analyzing the record, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled prior to her date last insured. The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed section. The ALJ then assessed the Plaintiff's RFC by evaluating the objective medical evidence and the Plaintiff's subjective symptoms. The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms. (R. 26.) But, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's testimony and prior statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were “not entirely credible.” (Id.) The Plaintiff testified that, among other issues, she has difficulties getting out of bed and often sleeps much of the day, that her feet “are, and have been, painful every day and every night, ” that steps are difficult, that there is sometimes numbness in the lower part of her legs, that she has had muscle spasms “at the rate of 5 to 7 per week, ” that “she needed a surface to put her hand on to stand up or to sit down, ” that she felt unbalanced when standing up, that she could not have picked up her infant granddaughter in 2009, that she had a painful tailbone that contributed to her difficulty sitting and standing, “a constant dull ache with some occasional sharp pains which prevent sitting more than 10 minutes and require standing up to alleviate, ” and incontinence. (R. 25.) The Plaintiff's adult daughter testified that the ...

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