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Carnahan v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 6, 2017



          William C. Lee, Judge

         This 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.[1] For the reasons explained below, the decision of the ALJ is AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff 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.


         As this 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 omitted).

         Importantly, 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.


         The ALJ made the following findings of fact and conclusions in this case:

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 ...

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