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Parker v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

September 14, 2017

WENDELL D. PARKER, Plaintiff,
v.
Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN, CHIEF JUDGE

         The Plaintiff, Wendell D. Parker, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits. The Plaintiff alleges that his disability began on February 23, 2012. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing in May 2015, at which the Plaintiff-who was represented by an attorney-and a vocational expert (VE) testified. On July 10, 2015, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff has severe impairments of obesity and hypersomnia with obstructive sleep apnea requiring tracheostomy. However, the ALJ ultimately concluded that the Plaintiff is not disabled because he can perform a limited range of sedentary work. On October 26, 2016, the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. The Plaintiff then initiated this civil action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         ALJ DECISION (FIVE-STEP EVALUATION)

         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). A disability under the Social Security Act is defined 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). An applicant must 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.” Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         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 he moved on 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 are obesity and hypersomnia with obstructive sleep apnea requiring tracheostomy. The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's hypertension, asthma, GERD, and diabetes were not severe and did not cause more than minimal limitations on work-related activities. The ALJ concluded that there were no significant objective medical findings to support the Plaintiff's complaints of back pain, and that his anxiety and depression were not severe.

         At step three, the ALJ considered numerous impairment listings to determine whether the Plaintiff had an impairment, or combination of impairments, that meets or medically equals 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 impairments 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. In arriving at the RFC, the ALJ acknowledged that the Plaintiff is clinically obese and has been diagnosed with hypersomnia with sleep apnea. The ALJ determined that due to these impairments and his nonsevere impairments, considered singly and in combination, the Plaintiff was not able to sustain the lifting and carrying requirements of light or greater exertional work. Therefore, he was limited to sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a). The Plaintiff's severe impairments also restricted him to sitting at least six hours in an eight-hour workday, standing or walking two hours, and lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling ten pounds frequently and occasionally. His impairments further restricted him to occasional crouching, crawling, kneeling, use of stairs and ramps of one to two flights at a time, bending and stooping. However, he could frequently balance. The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff would not be able to drive motor vehicles and forklifts or work within close proximity to open and dangerous machinery or open and exposed heights. He could not work outside, or have concentrated day-to-day exposure to excessive amounts of airborne particulate, dust gases and fumes, or extreme heat and cold. Finally, the tasks he performed could not require prolonged conversation.

         The ALJ did not believe that the objective physical record supported the severity of the symptoms that the Plaintiff alleged but, rather, that the impairments required no more restrictions than those listed in the RFC. According to the ALJ, providers had noted that the Plaintiff had more energy and was sleeping better since his tracheostomy, which had been performed in January 2013. A May 2013 sleep study also showed that the Plaintiff's severe obstructive sleep apnea syndrome had improved with tracheostomy. Imaging of his chest showed no acute disease. Although the Plaintiff was clinically obese (he weighed 404 pounds and had a Body Mass. Index of 53.31)[1], exams showed normal deep tendon reflexes, normal extremities, normal gait, clear lungs, unlabored respirations, no wheezing or rhonchi, normal heart, 5/5 strength in lower extremities, and ability to walk on heels, toes, and tandem walk. (R. 20 (citing10/24/13 consultative exam & 1/30/15 treatment notes).)

         Once the RFC is established, the ALJ uses it to determine whether the claimant can perform his past work and, if necessary, whether the claimant can perform other work in the economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. At this final step of the evaluation, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff could not perform his past work, but in light of his age, education, work experience, and RFC, could perform other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 evidence in support of the factual findings. Binion ...


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