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Hunter v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

December 4, 2017

DANIEL J. HUNTER, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Daniel J. Hunter seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied his Social Security Disability benefits and erred by (1) incorrectly determining that the Plaintiff's mental impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the relevant listings, (2) wrongly rejecting the medical opinion of a psychological expert, (3) failing to consider the Plaintiff's lower back pain as a severe impairment, (4) mischaracterizing and improperly weighing evidence, resulting in a flawed credibility determination, and (5) failing to present an adequate hypothetical question to the vocational expert.


         On April 14, 2014, the Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning on April 13, 2013. (R. 17.) His claim was denied initially on June 24, 2014, and upon reconsideration on August 25, 2014. (Id.) On February 18, 2015, an administrative law judge (ALJ) held a video hearing. (Id.) After obtaining medical interrogatories, the ALJ held a follow-up video hearing. (Id.) At the second hearing, Michael Cremerius, Ph.D., testified via telephone as an impartial medical expert, and Clifford Brady testified as a vocational expert. (Id.) On November 3, 2015, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's application, finding he was not disabled as of the date of the decision. (R. 17-30.) On March 2, 2016, 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 May 20, 2016, the Plaintiff filed this claim 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 since his alleged onset date of April 13, 2013. (R. 19.)

         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 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an affective disorder, and an anxiety disorder. (R. 19.) 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 that the impairments had lasted for at least twelve months as required under the statute. (R. 20.) The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's other alleged or diagnosed impairments, including mild lumbar degenerative disc disease/obese body habitus, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), hyperlipidemia, hearing loss, and a sleeping disorder, were not severe impairments because they either did not significantly limit the Plaintiff's physical or mental ability to do basic, work-related activities and/or had not been diagnosed and therefore were not medically determinable. (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 physically, 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 he had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following nonexertional limitations:

The claimant can understand, remember, and carryout simple and semi-skilled tasks. The claimant can maintain adequate attention and concentration for such tasks. The claimant can interact appropriately, but on a superficial basis, with co-workers and supervisor[s]. The claimant is further limited to occasional, brief and superficial contact with the general public. Lastly, the claimant can manage the changes involved in a routine work setting.

(R. 23.)

         After analyzing the record, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled as of his alleged onset date. The ALJ evaluated the objective medical evidence and the Plaintiff's subjective symptoms and found that the Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms. (R. 24.) But, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's testimony and prior statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were “not entirely credible.” (Id.) The Plaintiff testified that he suffered from “mood abnormalities, severe anxiety/panic/hypervigilance, and feelings of hopelessness, ” which impaired his ability to perform any work since April 2013. (Id.) He also testified that he ‚Äúremains anxious, socially isolates himself, and suffers from severe sleep deprivation secondary to ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder ...

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