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Lothridge v. Berryhill

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

November 29, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Hortansia Donnalee Lothridge seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits and for supplemental security income. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied her disability benefits and supplemental security income and erred by (1) impermissibly drawing inferences about her symptoms based on her failure to obtain regular medical treatment without first considering reasons why she failed to obtain such treatment, and (2) by failing to adequately explain the reasons behind the weight given to various medical evaluations and opinions.


         A. Procedural Background

         On May 20, 2013, the Plaintiff filed her 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 December 14, 2009. (R. 24, ECF No. 19.) Her claims were denied initially on October 24, 2013, and upon reconsideration on February 20, 2014. (Id.) On June 24, 2015, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Id.) Sharon D. Ringenberg, a vocational expert, also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.) On September 1, 2015, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff’s application, finding she was not disabled prior to her date last insured, December 31, 2014. (R. 24–37.) On January 10, 2017, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff’s request for review. (R. 1–3.)

         On March 11, 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 his physical or mental limitations prevent him from doing not only his previous work, but also any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering his 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 from her alleged onset date, December 14, 2009, to her date last insured, December 31, 2014. (R. 24.)

         In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting his ability to do basic work activities under § 404.1520(c). In this case, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including fibromyalgia, obesity, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), asthma, bipolar I disorder, depression, mood disorder, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and attention deficit disorder (ADD). (R. 26.) 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. (R. 27.) The ALJ also found that the Plaintiff had multiple non-severe impairments, including hyperlipidemia, hypertension, history of kidney infection, history of migraines/headaches, allergies, left shoulder disorder, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, vitamin D deficiency, mild mitral and tricuspid regurgitation and mild left atrial enlargement. (Id.) As to the Plaintiff’s migraines, allergies, left shoulder impairment, degenerative disc disease, vitamin D deficiency, and cardiac dysfunction, the ALJ noted that there was little evidence of significant or ongoing treatment. (Id.)

         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 he can still do, despite his limitations-to determine whether he 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 light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except:

She can frequently balance; she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; she can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; she can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; and she should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, wetness, humidity, noise, vibration, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, and hazards. In addition, the claimant can understand, remember and carry out simple instructions; she can make judgments on simple work-related decisions; she can respond appropriately to occasional interactions with supervisors and coworkers, but she should avoid ...

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