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Richards v. Berryhill

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

November 13, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The Plaintiff, Barbara S. Richards, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”) denying her applications for disability and disability insurance benefits as well as supplemental security income. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied her applications and erred by improperly placing undue weight on her ability to engage in daily activities and by considering the fact that her alleged onset date is only one day after the Commissioner denied her previous applications for benefits.


         A. Procedural Background

         On April 1, 2013, the Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, as well as a Title XVI application for supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning on October 15, 2011. (R. 13.) Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Id.) On March 6, 2015, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Id.) Marie Kieffer, a vocational expert, and the Plaintiff's boyfriend, Fred Folden, also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.) On May 29, 2015, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's applications, finding she was not disabled from her alleged onset date, October 15, 2011, until the date she was last insured, September 30, 2014. (R. 13-33.) On December 2, 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. 1-3.)

         Previously, the Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on July 13, 2010. (R. 13.) Her claims were denied initially on September 21, 2010, upon reconsideration on November 29, 2010, and after a hearing by an ALJ on October 14, 2011. (Id.) The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Id.) Although the Plaintiff's Title II claim was not too old to reopen, the ALJ in the instant case found that there was no evidence that clearly showed that the previous decision was in error and that there was no new and material evidence to justify reopening the previous decision.

         On January 31, 2017, the Plaintiff filed this claim [ECF No. 1] in federal court against the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.


         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 disability onset date, October 15, 2011. (R. 16.)

         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 lumbar degenerative disc disease/spondylosis/radiculitis, cervical degenerative disc disease/spondylosis, thoracic spine scoliosis, migraines/headaches, degenerative changes in the right shoulder, obesity, mild bilateral median neuropathy/carpal tunnel syndrome, major depressive disorder, and PTSD/generalized anxiety disorder. (R. 16.) 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. (Id.) However, though the ALJ noted that the Plaintiff also alleged that she broke her right ankle in 2011 and that she often had to take antibiotics for recurrent boils, the ALJ nevertheless found that the injury was not severely limiting for twelve months. (Id.) The ALJ also found that the recurring boils did not significantly limit her ability to perform basic work-related activities or had impeded the Plaintiff's abilty for a period of twelve months. (R. 17.)

         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 sedentary work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), finding that the Plaintiff could sit for a total of six hours and stand/walk for a total of two hours in an eight-hour period except:

[S]he is able to lift, carry, push, and pull 10 pounds. She is only occasionally able to push and pull. She is occasionally able to operate foot controls. She can maintain a posture for 30 minutes and then must alternate positions (but she can remain at the workstation and stay on task). In addition, the claimant can occasionally bend and stoop in addition to what is required to sit. She is not able to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and she can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, crouch, crawl, and kneel. She can frequently but not constantly engage in fine manipulation (fingering, feeling, gripping, and turning) of small objects and frequently but not constantly engage in gross manipulation (handling, grasping, and turning) large objects. It is best that she avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, humidity, and vibrations. She also should avoid work within close proximity to dangerous moving machinery, unprotected heights, and slippery/uneven surfaces. The claimant can perform simple, routine, repetitive work activity that can be learned with a short demonstration period of up to 30 days. She can maintain the concentration required to perform simple tasks and she can remember simple work-like procedures. She can tolerate a flexible, goal-oriented pace. She is limited from fast-paced work activity such as assembly line ...

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