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Willis v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

November 7, 2017

CHARLOTTE E. WILLIS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Defendant.

          ENTRY REVIEWING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          Hon. Jane Magnus-Stinson, Chief Judge

         Plaintiff Charlotte Willis applied to the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) for disability insurance benefits on November 4, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of October 2, 2013. [Filing No. 7-5 at 2.] Her application was denied initially on February 25, 2014, [Filing No. 7-3 at 10], and upon reconsideration on April 22, 2014, [Filing No. 7-3 at 19]. Administrative Law Judge Scot Gulick (“ALJ”) held a hearing on August 12, 2015, and issued a decision on August 24, 2015, concluding that Ms. Willis was not entitled to receive benefits. [Filing No. 7-2 at 10-28.] On February 1, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Willis' request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [Filing No. 7-2 at 2-5.] Ms. Willis then filed this civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), requesting that the Court review the Commissioner's decision. [Filing No. 1.]

         I.

         Standard of Review

         “The Social Security Act authorizes payment of disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income to individuals with disabilities.” Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214 (2002). “The statutory definition of ‘disability' has two parts. First, it requires a certain kind of inability, namely, an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. Second, it requires an impairment, namely, a physical or mental impairment, which provides reason for the inability. The statute adds that the impairment must be one that has lasted or can be expected to last . . . not less than 12 months.” Id. at 217.

         When an applicant appeals an adverse benefits decision, this Court's role is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id.(quotation omitted). Because the ALJ “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008), this Court must afford the ALJ's credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong, ” Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

         The ALJ must apply the five-step inquiry set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), evaluating the following, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently [un]employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the [Commissioner]; (4) whether the claimant can perform her past work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.

Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted) (alterations in original). “If a claimant satisfies steps one, two, and three, she will automatically be found disabled. If a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then she must satisfy step four. Once step four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.” Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).

         After Step Three, but before Step Four, the ALJ must determine a claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) by evaluating “all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009). In doing so, the ALJ “may not dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling.” Id.The ALJ uses the RFC at Step Four to determine whether the claimant can perform her own past relevant work and if not, at Step Five to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e), (g). The burden of proof is on the claimant for Steps One through Four; only at Step Five does the burden shift to the Commissioner. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

         If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits “is appropriate only where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).

         II.

         Background

         Ms. Willis was born on March 26, 1954, [Filing No. 7-5 at 2], has a high school education, and has previous work experience as a pharmacy technician, [Filing No. 7-6 at 7].[2] Ms. Willis worked as a pharmacy technician at CVS Pharmacy for approximately 40 years, and most recently worked for five months as a cashier at CVS. [Filing No. 7-2 at 37.] Ms. Willis claims that she is disabled based on a variety of conditions, which will be discussed as necessary below.

         Using the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ issued an opinion on August 24, 2015, determining that Ms. Willis was not entitled to receive disability benefits. [Filing No. 7-2 at 10-28.] The ALJ found as follows:

• At Step One, the ALJ found that Ms. Willis had engaged in substantial gainful activity[3]since the alleged onset date. [Filing No. 7-2 at 15.]
• At Step Two, the ALJ found that Ms. Willis suffered from the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease with spondylosis, minor arthritis of the right shoulder, and osteoarthritis of the knees.” [Filing No. 7-2 at 16.]
• At Step Three, the ALJ found that Ms. Willis did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. [Filing No. 7-2 at 16-17.]
• After Step Three but before Step Four, the ALJ found that Ms. Willis has the RFC to perform light work with the following specific limitations:
[Ms. Willis] can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sit for 6 of 8 hours; and stand and/or walk for 6 of 8 hours. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs, but she can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can have occasional exposure to humidity and wetness and no exposure to unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts.” [Filing No. 7-2 at 17.]
• At Step Four, the ALJ found that Ms. Willis is able to perform her past relevant work as a pharmacy technician. [Filing No. 7-2 at 23.] The ALJ therefore concluded that Ms. Willis has not been under disability since the alleged onset date of October 2, 2013.

[Filing No. 7-2 at 24.]

         Ms. Willis asked the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision, but that request was denied on February 1, 2017, [Filing No. 7-2 at 2-5], rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Ms. Willis then filed this civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), requesting that the Court review the ALJ's decision. [Filing No. 1.]

         III.

         Discussion

         Ms. Willis raises several issues on appeal which the Court will address in turn: (1) whether the ALJ appropriately treated all of the doctors' medical opinions and gave adequate reasoning for his treatment, [Filing No. 9 at 8-12], (2) whether the ALJ erred in Ms. Willis' credibility analysis, [Filing No. 9 at 12-14], and (3) whether the ALJ erred in relying on the vocational expert's responses ...


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