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Best v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

December 21, 2017

ALAN J. BEST, Plaintiff,



         The Plaintiff, Alan J. Best, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his application for disability insurance benefits. The Plaintiff claims that he is unable to maintain substantial gainful employment due to limitations brought about by a variety of medical conditions, including diabetes, degenerative disc disease, anxiety, and depression.


         On May 27, 2013, the Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging disability beginning on May 20, 2013. After his claim was denied initially, as well as upon reconsideration, the Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). On January 8, 2015, the Plaintiff, who was represented by an attorney, participated in a video hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On May 21, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision, applying the well-known five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v).

         At the first step, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 20, 2013, the alleged onset date. At the second step, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had severe impairments that significantly limited his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). These severe impairments were insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, degenerative disc disease, chronic right C7 radiculopathy, right carpal tunnel syndrome and ulnar neuropathy, obesity, hypertension, anxiety, and depression. The ALJ determined that these impairments impacted the Plaintiff's ability to lift and carry heavy items, to perform fine finger manipulations, and to perform the mental demands of work in the context of concentrating for extended periods. The ALJ also found that these impairments impacted postural changes. The ALJ discussed several impairments that did not appear to have a lasting effect on the Plaintiff's ability to function, or did not produce symptoms that would interfere more than minimally with his ability to perform work-related activity and, thus, were not severe.

         At step three, the ALJ considered whether the Plaintiff's impairments, or combination of impairments, met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed by the Administration as being so severe that it presumptively precludes SGA. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff's impairments did not meet any listings, and noted that there were no acceptable medical sources who opined otherwise.

         Next, the ALJ was required, at step four, to determine the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC), which is an assessment of the claimant's ability to perform sustained work-related physical and mental activities in light of his impairments. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff had the RFC to perform less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b). Specifically, he could lift, carry, push and pull ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally; could sit for six hours in an eight-hour work day; could stand/walk for six hours in an eight-hour work day; could use his right upper extremity for frequent, but not constant, fine finger manipulation; would be precluded from climbing ladders/ropes/scaffolds; could occasionally climb ramps/stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and could sustain attention to tasks throughout an eight-hour work day, but for less than two hours consecutively on any single task.

         At the final step of the evaluation, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff was not disabled because he was capable of performing the requirements of representative unskilled light occupations such as retail marker, housekeeper/cleaner, dining room attendant, mail sorter, routing clerk, and hand packager.

         The Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. In January 2016, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Liskowitz v. Astrue, 559 F.3d 736, 739 (7th Cir. 2009). The Plaintiff seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         A claimant is disabled only if he shows an 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). He has the burden of proving disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a). He must establish that his physical or mental impairments “are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         A 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 is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It must be “more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). 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, and the decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an inadequate discussion of the issues. Id.

         The ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, but the ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009). If the Commissioner commits an error of law, remand is warranted without regard to the volume of ...

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