United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
OPINION AND ORDER
DEGUILIO JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
2000, Anthony Kaminski fell down a flight of stairs, causing
a head injury that left him with impaired cognition and
caused him to experience seizures. Years later, in 2013, he
applied for social security benefits, arguing that he became
disabled on the date of his accident. An administrative law
judge disagreed and found that there were jobs Mr. Kaminski
still had the capability to perform. Mr. Kaminski submitted
additional evidence to the Appeals Council with his request
for review, but the Appeals Council denied review, making the
Commissioner's decision final. Mr. Kaminski then filed
this action seeking of review of that decision. Because the
ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence and
the Appeals Council did not err in denying review, the Court
affirms the Commissioner's decision.
September 19, 2000, Mr. Kaminski fell down a flight of
stairs. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and a broken
jaw, and he experienced a seizure. He was discharged from the
hospital after undergoing surgery on his jaw, but he
continued to have some cognitive deficits and mental status
changes. He began taking medication to control his seizure
disorder, and between his hospitalization and the date of the
ALJ's decision, he experienced only four seizures. He
also attended periodical appointments with his neurologist
over the ensuing years.
March 7, 2013, Mr. Kaminski applied for social security
disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income, claiming that he became disabled on the date of his
accident. The following month, he underwent a consultative
medical examination. (R. 363). The examiner found that Mr.
Kaminski's strength was “4/5 [in] all major muscle
groups, ” that his “[f]ine finger manipulative
ability is normal, ” and that he has “ataxic
gait” but “displays no signs of poor
balance” and “is able to stand from a sitting
position without difficulty, stoop and/or squat and is able
to walk heel to toe.” (R. 364-65). The examiner further
noted that Mr. Kaminski's memory appeared preserved, that
he reported no fatigue, dizziness, or difficulty with
concentration, and that he showed appropriate judgment.
Id. Mr. Kaminski also underwent a consultative
psychological examination. The examiner noted that Mr.
Kaminski was oriented and cooperative, and that his mood was
affable. (R. 369). The examiner also found that Mr. Kaminski
“had concrete reasoning” but that his memory was
poor. (R. 369-70).
reviewing physicians then reviewed Mr. Kaminski's medical
records and the consultative examinations and offered
opinions as to his functional capacity. They found that he
was capable of performing medium work, with a number of
postural and environmental limitations, including that Mr.
Kaminski should never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds;
only occasionally climb ramps or stairs; and never be exposed
to machinery or heights. (R. 81-82). They further found that
he had moderate limitations in his ability to carry out
detailed instructions, maintain concentration for extended
periods, and interact with coworkers or the public, among a
variety of other limitations. (R. 83-84; see also R.
Kaminski's treating physician, however, offered much more
restrictive opinions as to Mr. Kaminski's ability to
work. He opined that Mr. Kaminski could never lift more than
five pounds, that he could only rarely reach in any direction
or handle objects, and that it would be unsafe for him to
lift, pull, or hold objects due to his seizure disorder. (R.
379-80). He also opined that Mr. Kaminski can stand or walk
less than two hours in a workday, that he is incapable of
even “low stress” work, and that he has no
ability to maintain attention, make simple work-related
decisions, or accept instructions. (R. 434-35, 439).
holding a hearing at which Mr. Kaminski, his sister, and a
vocational expert testified, the ALJ considered this evidence
and decided to give “substantial evidentiary
weight” to the opinions of the reviewing physicians,
and “little evidentiary weight” to the opinions
of Mr. Kaminski's treating physician. (R. 21-22). He
explained that the treating physician's opinions
“are simply not supported by the record as a whole,
including [his] own treatment notes, ” and the ALJ
cited multiple examples of evidence in the record suggesting
that Mr. Kaminski was not as limited as the treating
physician opined. (R. 2). As to the reviewing physicians, the
ALJ found that their opinions were consistent with the record
as a whole, and he adopted a Residual Functional Capacity for
Mr. Kaminski that largely tracked those physicians'
opinions. Based on the testimony of the vocational expert,
the ALJ concluded that Mr. Kaminski would be unable to
perform his previous jobs, but that there were other jobs
that he would be able to perform, including “general
helper, ” “laundry laborer, ” and
“dryer attendant.” (R. 23-23). Accordingly, the
ALJ found that Mr. Kaminski was not disabled and was thus not
entitled to benefits.
Kaminski asked the Appeals Council to review his claim, and
he submitted additional evidence for the Appeals Council to
consider, including letters from his treating physician and a
former employer. However, the Appeals Council denied his
request for review, stating that the new evidence did
“not provide a basis for changing the Administrative
Law Judge's decision.” (R. 2). Therefore, the
ALJ's decision denying Mr. Kaminski's claim became
the final decision of the Commissioner. Mr. Kaminski then
filed this action seeking review of that decision.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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).
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 ...