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Ridge v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

January 9, 2018

JOSEPH N. RIDGE, Plaintiff,



         Joseph N. Ridge (“Ridge”) requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). See 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d), 1382c(a)(3)(A). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. Background

         Ridge filed applications for DIB and SSI on October 15, 2013, alleging an onset of disability date of September 1, 2013. [Dkt. 16-2 at 16.] Ridge alleges disability due to congenital deformity of non-dominant left hand and arm, history of polysubstance dependence, depression, and personality disorder.[1] [Dkt. 16-2 at 19.] Ridge's application was initially denied on January 7, 2014, and denied again on February 27, 2014, upon reconsideration. [Dkt. 16-2 at 14.] Ridge timely filed a written request for a hearing, which was held on March 7, 2014, before Administrative Law Judge James R. Norris. (“ALJ”). Id. The ALJ issued a decision on August 25, 2015, again denying Ridge's applications for SSI. [Dkt. 16-2 at 13.] On January 23, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Ridge's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision for purposes of judicial review. [Dkt. 16-2 at 2.] Ridge timely filed his Complaint with this Court on March 20, 2017, which Complaint is now before the Court.

         II. Legal Standard

         To be eligible for DIB or SSI, a claimant must have a disability pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.[2] 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 determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner, as represented by the ALJ, employs a five-step sequential analysis: (1) if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled; (2) if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment, one that significantly limits his ability to perform basic work activities, he is not disabled; (3) if the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment appearing in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpart P, App. 1, the claimant is disabled; (4) if the claimant is not found to be disabled at step three and he is able to perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled; and (5) if the claimant is not found to be disabled at step three and cannot perform his past relevant work but he can perform certain other available work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Before proceeding from step three to step four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), identifying the claimant's functional limitations and assessing the claimant's remaining capacity for work-related activities. S.S.R. 96-8p.

         The ALJ's findings of fact are conclusive and must be upheld by this Court “so long as substantial evidence supports them and no error of law occurred.” Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). “Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id.This Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ but may only determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion. Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing Schmidt v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 970, 972 (7th Cir. 2000); Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007)). The ALJ “need not evaluate in writing every piece of testimony and evidence submitted.” Carlson v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 180, 181 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing Stephens v. Heckler, 766 F.2d 284, 287 (7th Cir. 1985); Zblewski v. Schweiker, 732 F.2d 75, 79 (7th Cir. 1984)). However, the “ALJ's decision must be based upon consideration of all the relevant evidence.” Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994). To be affirmed, the ALJ must articulate his analysis of the evidence in his decision; while he “is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony, ” he must “provide some glimpse into his reasoning” and “build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [his] conclusion.” Dixon, 270 F.3d at 1176.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ first determined that Ridge has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 1, 2013, the alleged onset date. [Dkt. 16-2 at 19.] At step two, the ALJ determined that Ridge “has the following severe impairments: Congenital Deformity of Non-Dominant Left Hand and Arm, History of Polysubstance Dependence, Depression, and Personality Disorder.” Id. The ALJ found that Ridge's mental impairments, including the substance abuse disorder, meet Listings 12.04, 12.08, and 12.09. However, the ALJ also found that without substance abuse Ridge's impairments would continue to be severe, but the impairments or combination of impairments would no longer meet the Listings. [Dkt. 16-2 at 20.]

         The ALJ next analyzed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) in the absence of substance abuse. He concluded that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform the following:

[L]ift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, sit for 2 hours at a time for a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour day, stand for 1 hour at a time for a total of 3 hours in an 8-hour workday, and walk for 1 hour at a time for a total of 3 hours in an 8-hour workday. The claimant has no limits on the use of his dominant right upper extremity. As for his non-dominant left upper extremity, however, the claimant is limited to occasional overhead reaching, pushing/pulling, and reaching in all directions. With the left upper extremity, the claimant can never handle, finger, or feel. He can also engage in only slight grasping with the left upper extremity. The claimant can frequently use foot controls and climb stairs, but can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant can frequently kneel and stoop. He can occasionally crouch and crawl. The claimant cannot tolerate any exposure to dangerous heights but can frequently work around moving mechanical parts. The claimant can perform no commercial driving. He can occasionally tolerate extreme temperature. As for his mental limitations, the claimant is limited to work requiring only occasional contact with supervisors, coworkers, and the general public.

         In finding these limitations, the ALJ considered Ridge's “symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence.” [Dkt. 16-2 at 22.] The ALJ then acknowledged that the evidence suggested some level of mental impairment; however, the extent of limitation is “difficult to gauge because of the claimant's consistent embellishment in his attempt to manipulate the disability process by obtaining favorable medical records.” [Dkt. 16-2 at 27.]

         At step four, the ALJ concluded the Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. [Dkt. 16-2 at 29.] The ALJ thus proceeded to step five, at which time he received testimony from the vocational expert indicating that someone with Plaintiff's education, work experience, age, and RFC would be able to perform occupations such as office machine operator or mail clerk. Because these jobs existed in ...

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