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King v. Berryhill

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

October 31, 2017

CHERYL A. KING, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN, CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT.

         The Plaintiff, Cheryl A. King, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income disability benefits. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied her Social Security Disability benefits and erred by failing to develop the record, improperly evaluating her obesity, failing to build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion, failing to incorporate all of her medically determinable impairments into her Residual Functional Capacity, improperly evaluating lay witness testimony, and failing to consider the impact of her inability to afford treatment.

         BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         On May 28, 2013, the Plaintiff applied for Supplemental Security Income, alleging disability beginning on May 28, 2013. (R. 26.) The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied her claim initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 26.) On March 10, 2015, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (R. 26.) A vocational expert also testified. (R. 26.) On June 19, 2015, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's application, finding she was not disabled as of May 28, 2013, the date her application was filed. (R. 26-38.) On September 29, 2016, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. 5.)

         On November 21, 2016, the Plaintiff filed this claim [ECF No. 1] in federal court against the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         Disability is defined as the “inability 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). To be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work, but also any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The first step is to determine whether the claimant no longer engages in substantial gainful activity (SGA). Id. In the case at hand, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff has been unable to engage in SGA since her alleged onset date, May 28, 2013. (R. 28.)

         In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting her ability to do basic work activities under § 404.1520(c). In this case, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including type II diabetes, ulcerative colitis requiring Prednisone therapy, obesity and hypertension, depression/bipolar disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder as of her alleged onset date. (R. 28); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). The ALJ found that these impairments caused more than minimal limitations in the Plaintiff's ability to perform the basic mental and physical demands of work and had lasted for at least twelve months as required under the statute. (R. 28.) The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's other alleged or diagnosed impairments, including alcohol abuse, glaucoma, back and joint pain, a thyroid condition, sleep paralysis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and periodic blurred vision, were not severe impairments because they did not significantly limit the Plaintiff's physical or mental ability to do basic, work-related activities. (R. 28-30.)

         Step three requires the ALJ to “consider the medical severity of [the] impairment” to determine whether the impairment “meets or equals one of the [the] listings in appendix 1 . . . .” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant's impairment(s), considered singly or in combination with other impairments, rise to this level, there is a presumption of disability “without considering [the claimant's] age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(d). But, if the impairment(s), either singly or in combination, fall short, the ALJ must proceed to step four and examine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (RFC)-the types of things she can still do physically, despite her limitations-to determine whether she can perform “past relevant work, ” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), or whether the claimant can “make an adjustment to other work” given the claimant's “age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the listings in Appendix 1 and that she had the RFC to perform a range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), except that she was further limited to:

lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; [sitting] up to at least six out of eight hours in an eight hour workday; standing/walking in combination, up to at least six out of eight hours in an eight hour workday, only occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and climbing of ramps and stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; cannot understand, remember, or carry out detailed or complex job instructions, but can perform simple, repetitive tasks on a sustained basis; no sudden or unpredictable workplace changes; cannot perform tasks requiring intense/focused attention for prolonged periods; needs work at a flexible pace, where the employee is allowed some independence in ...

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