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Walker v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

September 21, 2017

SEAN CHRISTOPHER WALKER, Plaintiff,
v.
Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN CHIEF JUDGE

         Plaintiff 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 reconsideration.

         BACKGROUND

         The 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.

         On July 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).

         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 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.

         At step 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 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 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.

         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” ...


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