United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division
OPINION AND ORDER
THERESA L. SPRINGMANN CHIEF JUDGE
Sean Walker seeks judicial review of Defendant Acting
Commissioner of Social Security Administration's decision
to deny his Disability Insurance and Social Security Income
benefits for the period between January 15, 2008, through
December 5, 2014. He asks this Court to reverse the
agency's decision or, alternatively, remand the case for
Plaintiff claims he became disabled on January 15, 2008, at
the age of 42, because of a stroke. His diagnoses included an
acute cerebral hemorrhage, hypertension, and lower back pain.
On April 29, 2013, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) denied
the Plaintiff's application for benefits. While the ALJ
agreed that Plaintiff's residuals from a stroke, such as
fatigue, dizziness, memory and cognitive issues, and his
degenerative disc disease at ¶ 4-5 were severe
impairments, she found that they did not meet or equal any
listing found in the federal regulations. Moreover, the ALJ
found that Plaintiff was able to perform a significant number
of jobs that exist in the national economy. The ALJ's
decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when
the Social Security Appeals Council denied the
Plaintiff's request to review it. The Plaintiff appealed
to the United States District Court for the Northern District
of Indiana. On February 16, 2016, the Honorable Joseph S. Van
Bokkelen remanded the matter for further proceedings, and the
case was sent back to an ALJ for a new hearing and decision.
12, 2016, a new administrative hearing before a different ALJ
was held, and on July 22, 2016, the ALJ issued a written
decision, in which she concluded that Plaintiff was not
disabled. In rendering this decision, the ALJ noted that the
Plaintiff had already received a favorable ruling as of
December 5, 2014, and confined her decision to addressing the
period from January 15, 2008, through December 4, 2012. That
decision became the final decision of the Commissioner and
has been appealed to this Court for judicial review under 42
U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
DECISION (FIVE-STEP EVALUATION)
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. §
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 she 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 status post cerebral hemmorage,
degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, and cognitive
disorder NOS. The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's
hypertension and hyperlipidemia did not impose more than
minimal limitations on work-related activities. The ALJ noted
that a March 2015 psychological consultative examination
diagnosed an unspecified depressive disorder and unspecified
anxiety disorder. These conditions were not identified until
after the Plaintiff was found to be disabled in December
2014, and prior to this, the Plaintiff had no mental health
treatment, was not taking psychotropic medications, and
treatment records did not reflect problems with mood,
anxiety, or other psychological symptoms.
three, the ALJ considered 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
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 incorporated the discussion of evidence from the
April 29, 2013, decision, as well as the testimony from the
July 2016 hearing, function reports, and the medical records
and opinions. The ALJ concluded that the evidence did not
support the severity of the Plaintiff's alleged mental or
physical impairments during the relevant period. The ALJ
acknowledged that the Plaintiff had some residual effects
from the 2008 stroke, including fatigue, dizzy spells, and
memory problems, and also had a record of some reported back
pain. To reflect this, the ALJ limited the Plaintiff to
sedentary, unskilled work. The ALJ added to this postural and
environmental restrictions, and limited the Plaintiff to
simple instructions and tasks and a work environment free
from fast paced productions requirements or pace.
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.
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).
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” ...