United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division
TONYA A. CARNAHAN, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
William C. Lee, Judge
matter is before the Court for review of a final decision by
the Commissioner denying an award of benefits to the
Plaintiff, Tonya A. Carnahan. Carnahan filed her opening
brief on May 26, 2017 (ECF 12), along with a summary of her
medical history (ECF 12-1). On July 27, 2017, the
Commissioner filed a memorandum in support of the decision by
the Administrative Law Judge to deny benefits (ECF 17).
Carnahan chose not to file a reply. The official Social
Security Administrative Record, filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g), appears at ECF 5. For the reasons explained
below, the decision of the ALJ is
Tonya Carnahan applied for Social Security Disability
benefits (SSD) and Supplemental Security Income benefits
(SSI) on July 16, 2014, alleging “an onset of
disability of May 16, 2012.” Plaintiff's Brief, p.
2 (citing transcript of administrative record (ECF 5)), pp.
90-91, 209-216. “Her applications were denied initially
. . . and after reconsideration.” Id. (citing
Tr., pp. 114-131, 134-147). Carnahan requested and was
granted a hearing before Administrative Law Judge William D.
Pierson, which was held on March 1, 2016. Id.
Carnahan explains in her brief that “[a]t the hearing,
Ms. Carnahan amended her onset to November 20, 2013.”
Id. (citing Tr., pp. 47-48, 23). Carnahan
“appeared and testified at [the] hearing . . ., as did
a vocational expert.” Commissioner's Response, p.
1. The ALJ concluded that Carnahan was not disabled and
issued a decision on July 20, 2016, explaining his reasoning.
Plaintiff's Brief, p. 2 (citing Tr., pp. 14-40). Carnahan
then “requested review of the ALJ's decision by the
Appeals Council . . . [but] the Appeals Council denied review
on September 20, 2016.” Id. (citing Tr., pp.
1-6). That denial rendered the ALJ's decision final, and
Carnahan now seeks review by this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) “request[ing] that
the decision of the Commissioner be reversed for an award of
benefits.” Id., p. 15. Carnahan argues that
“[a]lternatively, the claim should be remanded for a
new hearing and decision[.]” Id.
Court has explained, the Social Security Act authorizes
judicial review of a final decision denying benefits, but
also provides that an ALJ's findings must be accepted as
conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. Visinaiz
v. Berryhill, 243 F.Supp.3d 1008, 1011 (N.D. Ind. 2017).
“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.” Id. (citing 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.” Id. (citations
the district court “reviews the entire administrative
record but does not reconsider facts, re-weigh the evidence,
resolve conflicts in evidence, decide questions of
credibility, or substitute its judgment for that of the
ALJ.” Id. (citing 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)). The
question on 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.'” Id. at 1011-12 (quoting
Roddy v. Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2013)
and 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.'” Id. at 1012 (quoting White
v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 369, 373 (7th Cir. 1999)). Put
another way, this Court must review an ALJ's findings and
conclusions to ensure that they are not contrary to
applicable law and that the ALJ adequately explains the
reasoning for those conclusions. As Magistrate Judge Martin
explained in Visinaiz:
At a minimum, an ALJ must articulate his or 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, as a reviewing
court, we 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.”).
Id. With this standard firmly in mind, the Court
concludes that the ALJ's decision in this case must be
affirmed for the reasons discussed below.
made the following findings of fact and conclusions in this
1. Carnahan “has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since November 20, 2013 . . ., the amended alleged
onset date[.]” ALJ Decision (Tr., p. 25);
2. Carnahan “has the following severe impairments:
disorders of the neck and back (degenerative changes in the
cervical and lumbar spine, and sacroiliac joint arthritis),
chronic pain disorder, obesity, complex partial seizure
disorder, and migraines[.]” Id.;
3. Carnahan “does not have an impairment or combination
of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments” under the Act.
Id., p. 27;
4. Carnahan “has the residual function capacity to
perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) (lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling 10 pounds
frequently and 20 pounds occasionally and, in an eight-hour
period, sitting or standing/walking for a total of at least 6
hours each) except that she cannot climb ropes, ladders, or
scaffolds and she can only occasionally kneel, crouch, crawl,
and balance. She can also occasionally bend and stoop in
addition to what is required to sit. She can occasionally use
ramps and stairs but, aside from use of ramps and stairs on
an occasional basis, the claimant should not work [on] uneven
surfaces. The claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to
wetness, such as when working [on] wet and slippery surfaces.
She also needs to avoid work within close proximity to open
and exposed heights and open and dangerous machinery, such as
open flames and fast moving exposed blades. She further needs
to avoid work involving concentrated exposure to vibration,
such as using heavy sanders, and she is limited from
concentrated exposure to excessive airborne particulate,
dusts, fumes, and gases and excessive heat, humidity, and
cold, such as when working outside or within a sawmill,
boiler room, chemical plant, green house, refrigerator, or
sewage plant. She needs to avoid work within close proximity
to very loud noises, such as fire alarms, and very
bright/flashing lights, such as a strobe, more than
occasionally. The claimant is also not able to engage in
overhead work and overhead reaching. She is further limited
to work within a low stress job, defined as requiring only
occasional decision-making and only occasional changes in the
work setting. She can tolerate predictable changes in the
work environment and meet production requirements in an
environment that allows her to sustain a flexible and
goal-oriented pace. She is limited from fast-paced work, such
as assembly line production work with rigid or strict
productivity requirements. The claimant is limited to work
that involves only simple, routine, and repetitive tasks that
can be learned through short demonstration and up to 30 days.
She can maintain the concentration required to perform simple
tasks, remember simple work-like procedures, and make simple
work-related decisions. The work she can perform will require
little or no judgment to perform simple duties, consistent
with the reasoning levels 1, 2, and 3 as defined [in] the
Dictionary of Occupational Titles and SVP levels of 1 and 2
as rated by the SCO. Id., p. 29;
5. Carnahan “is unable to perform any past relevant
work . . . . The claimant has past relevant work as a
cashier/stocker (semi-skilled, heavy work) . . . . Because
she is able to perform only a reduced range of light work,
she is not able to perform her past relevant work. This is
consistent with the vocational expert's testimony.”
Id., p. 35;
6. Carnahan “was 41 years old, which is defined as a
younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability ...