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Oba v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

December 7, 2017

STACY L. OBA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Plaintiff Stacy L. Oba applied for social security disability benefits, claiming that she was unable to work due to a variety of impairments. She alleged that she suffered extreme pain from degenerative disc and joint diseases that prevented her from engaging in almost any activities, as well as gastrointestinal problems that would prevent her from attending a job. An administrative law judge found that Ms. Oba was limited in her ability to work, but not as severely as alleged, and that there were jobs that a person with Ms. Oba's limitations could perform. Accordingly, the Commissioner denied Ms. Oba's claim for benefits. Ms. Oba filed this action seeking review of that decision. For the reasons explained below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's denial of the claim.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Ms. Oba filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income, claiming that, by February 2012, she had become unable to work due to her health conditions. She primarily alleged that she was disabled due to pain that she suffered from degenerative disc and joint disease in her back, hip, and knees. Though her x-rays and MRIs revealed only mild findings, Ms. Oba complained of pain so severe that she was unable to walk or engage in any meaningful activity. She sought treatment for that condition through a pain management doctor, who prescribed narcotic pain medication. Ms. Oba also complained of extreme gastrointestinal conditions, and testified that for the previous two and half years, she had been throwing up ten to twenty times a day and having diarrhea twenty to thirty times a day. The record showed that Ms. Oba had been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome and narcotic bowel syndrome, but also contained conflicting evidence as to whether or to what extent Ms. Oba suffered symptoms from those conditions. Ms. Oba had also undergone gastric bypass surgery some time before her alleged onset date, and while she had lost several hundred pounds, she still qualified as obese.[1]

         An administrative law judge held a hearing on Ms. Oba's claims, and Ms. Oba and a vocational expert each testified. The ALJ then issued a written decision that concluded Ms. Oba did not qualify as disabled. In particular, the ALJ found at step two that Ms. Oba had a number of severe impairments, including degenerative disc disease, knee and hip degenerative joint disease, and obesity. He then found that Ms. Oba did not meet or equal any of the listings at step three-a finding Ms. Oba does not challenge on appeal-so he proceeded to evaluate her residual functional capacity. Among other limitations, he found that she could stand or walk up to two hours in a day; that she could lift or carry up to twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; that she could occasionally balance, stoop, and kneel, but could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and that she could not perform commercial driving or be exposed to hazards. The vocational expert testified that a person with those limitations could perform a number of sedentary jobs, so the ALJ found at step five that Ms. Oba was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Ms. Oba's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Ms. Oba thus filed this action seeking review of that decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Because the Appeals Council denied review, the Court evaluates the ALJ's decision as the final word of the Commissioner of Social Security. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). This Court will affirm the Commissioner's findings of fact and denial of disability benefits if they are supported by substantial evidence. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). This evidence must be “more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Thus, even if “reasonable minds could differ” about the disability status of the claimant, the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision as long as it is adequately supported. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         It is the duty of the ALJ to weigh the evidence, resolve material conflicts, make independent findings of fact, and dispose of the case accordingly. Perales, 402 U.S. at 399-400. In this substantial-evidence determination, the Court considers the entire administrative record but does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute the Court's own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Nevertheless, the Court conducts a “critical review of the evidence” before affirming the Commissioner's decision. Id. An ALJ must evaluate both the evidence favoring the claimant as well as the evidence favoring the claim's rejection and may not ignore an entire line of evidence that is contrary to his or her findings. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001). Consequently, an ALJ's decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues. Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539. While the ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, the ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Disability benefits are available only to those individuals who can establish disability under the terms of the Social Security Act.[2] Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998). Specifically, the claimant must be unable “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). The Social Security regulations create a five-step sequential evaluation process to be used in determining whether the claimant has established a disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). The steps are to be used in the following order:

1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity;
2. Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment;
3. Whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one listed in the regulations;
4. Whether the claimant can still perform relevant past work; and
5. Whether the claimant can perform other work in the ...

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