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Luckett v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

September 21, 2017

PHILLIP A. LUCKETT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PAUL R. CHERRY MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on a Complaint [DE 1], filed by Plaintiff Phillip A. Luckett on June 11, 2016, and Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Reversing the Decision of the Commissioner of Social Security [DE 16], filed by Plaintiff on October 11, 2016. Plaintiff requests that the May 5, 2015 decision of the Administrative Law Judge denying in part his claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income be reversed and remanded for further proceedings. On December 22, 2016, the Commissioner filed a response, and Plaintiff filed a reply on January 27, 2017. For the following reasons, the Court grants Plaintiff's request for remand.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff originally filed applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) on March 8, 2007, alleging disability beginning November 5, 2005. The claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. On December 1, 2009, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Mona Ahmed issued an unfavorable decision. On February 24, 2011, the Appeals Council remanded for a new hearing. On October 5, 2011, ALJ Roxanne Kelsey issued another unfavorable decision. At Plaintiff's request, the ALJ reopened the case and issued an amended unfavorable decision on October 19, 2011. Plaintiff again requested Appeals Council review, which was denied on February 17, 2012, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then filed a civil action, and, on August 15, 2013, this Court reversed and remanded for a new hearing. Pursuant to that Court order, the Appeals Council issued an order on April 7, 2014, remanding the case for a new hearing. While the case was pending, Plaintiff filed new applications for DIB and SSI, which were both denied. The Appeals Council directed consolidation of those cases for consideration. On May 5, 2015, ALJ Ramona Scales issued a partially favorable decision, making the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2010.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date.
3. Since the alleged onset of disability, November 5, 2005, the claimant has the following severe impairments: history of dislocations of the left shoulder, degenerative joint disease of the right shoulder, degenerative disc disease, gunshot wound to the lower extremity and diabetes.
4. Since the alleged onset of disability, November 5, 2005, the claimant has not had an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that prior to September 27, 2011, the date the claimant became disabled, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) as the claimant was able to lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently and sit, stand and/or walk for six hours in an eight hour workday, except: the claimant needed a sit/stand option that allowed him to alternate between sitting and standing for five minutes every hour, was able to lift five pounds with the left arm when the arm was fully extended, was unable to climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds or reach overhead with the left upper extremity, could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl or reach in all other directions with the left upper extremity and all directions with the right upper extremity and needed to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, vibration, wetness and humidity and all exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery.
6. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that beginning on September 27, 2011, the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) as the claimant is able to lift and/or carry 10 pounds occasionally, sit for six hours in an eight hour workday and stand and/or walk for two hours in an eight hour workday, except: the claimant needs a sit/stand option that allows him to alternate between sitting and standing for five minutes every hour, is able to lift five pounds in the left arm when the arm is fully extended, is unable to climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds or reach overhead with the left upper extremity, can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl or reach in all other directions with the left upper extremity and all directions with the right upper extremity and needs to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, vibration, wetness and humidity and all exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery.
7. Since November 5, 2005, the claimant has been unable to perform any past relevant work.
8. Prior to the established disability onset date, the claimant was a younger individual age 18-49. Since the established disability onset date, the claimant's age category has changed to an individual closely approaching advanced age.
9. The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English.
10. Prior to September 27, 2011, transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled” whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills. Beginning on September 27, 2011, the claimant has not been able to transfer job skills to other occupations.
11. Prior to September 27, 2011, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed.
12. Beginning on September 27, 2011, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.
13. The claimant was not disabled prior to September 27, 2011, but became disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled through the date of this decision.
14. The claimant was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time through December 31, 2010, the date last insured.

(AR 760-71).

         As a result of these findings, Plaintiff was entitled to only SSI beginning on September 27, 2011. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, leaving ALJ Scale's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. Plaintiff filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the Agency's decision.

         The parties filed forms of consent to have this case assigned to a United States Magistrate Judge to conduct all further proceedings and to order the entry of a final judgment in this case. Therefore, this Court has jurisdiction to decide this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Social Security Act authorizes judicial review of the final decision of the agency and indicates that the Commissioner's factual findings must be accepted as conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Thus, a court reviewing the findings of an ALJ will reverse only if the findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ has applied an erroneous legal standard. See Briscoe v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005) (quoting Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003)).

         A court reviews the entire administrative record but does not reconsider facts, re-weigh the evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See Boiles v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 421, 425 (7th Cir. 2005); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000); Butera v. Apfel, 173 F.3d 1049, 1055 (7th Cir. 1999). Thus, the question upon judicial review of an ALJ's finding that a claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is not whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled, but whether the ALJ “uses the correct legal standards and the decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Roddy v. Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2010); Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 734-35 (7th Cir. 2006); Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004)). “[I]f the Commissioner commits an error of law, ” the Court may reverse the decision “without regard to the volume of evidence in support of the factual findings.” White v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 369, 373 (7th Cir. 1999) (citing Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997)).

         At a minimum, an ALJ must articulate her analysis of the evidence in order to allow the reviewing court to trace the path of her reasoning and to be assured that the ALJ considered the important evidence. See Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002); Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 307 (7th Cir. 1995); Green v. Shalala, 51 F.3d 96, 101 (7th Cir. 1995). An ALJ must “‘build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [the] conclusion' so that [a reviewing court] may assess the validity of the agency's final decision and afford [a claimant] meaningful review.” Giles v. Astrue, 483 F.3d 483, 487 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Scott, 297 F.3d at 595)); see also O'Connor-Spinner, 627 F.3d at 618 (“An ALJ need not specifically address every piece of evidence, but must provide a ‘logical bridge' between the evidence and his conclusions.”); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 889 (7th Cir. 2001) (“[T]he ALJ's analysis must provide some glimpse into the reasoning behind [the] decision to deny benefits.”).

         DISABILITY STANDARD

         To be eligible for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he suffers from a “disability” as defined by the Social Security Act and regulations. The Act defines “disability” as an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). To be found disabled, the claimant's impairment must not only prevent him from doing his previous work, but considering his age, education, and work experience, it must also prevent him from engaging in any other type of substantial gainful activity that exists in significant numbers in the economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e)-(f), 416.920(e)-(f).

         When a claimant alleges a disability, Social Security regulations provide a five-step inquiry to evaluate whether the claimant is entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The steps are: (1) Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity? If yes, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no, the inquiry proceeds to step two; (2) Does the claimant have an impairment or combination of impairments that are severe? If no, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if yes, the inquiry proceeds to step three; (3) Do(es) the impairment(s) meet or equal a listed impairment in the appendix to the regulations? If yes, the claimant is automatically considered disabled; if no, then the inquiry proceeds to step four; (4) Can the claimant do the claimant's past relevant work? If yes, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no, then the inquiry proceeds to step five; (5) Can the claimant perform other work given the claimant's residual functional capacity ...


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