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Kaminski v. Berryhill

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

September 11, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         In 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.


         On 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.

         On 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).

         Agency 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. 101-04).

         Mr. 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).

         After 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.

         Mr. 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.


         Because 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).

         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. 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).


         Disability 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 ...

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