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Mitchell v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

January 16, 2018




         The Plaintiff, Vickie L. Mitchell, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. The Plaintiff claims that the Commissioner made errors in determining that she is able to perform her past relevant work. Specifically, she asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) should have found that her status-post left radial fracture with open reduction and internal fixation of her carpal tunnel syndrome was a severe impairment. The Plaintiff also maintains that the ALJ's determination that she was able to perform medium exertion work is contradicted by two pieces of evidence that the ALJ erroneously discounted.

         For the reasons stated in this Opinion and Order, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, and that there is no basis to remand for further review.


         On December 20, 2013, the Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, and on December 31, 2013, filed an application for supplemental security income under Title XVI. The alleged onset date of her disability is September 15, 2011. After her claim was denied initially, as well as upon reconsideration, the Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. On December 4, 2015, the Plaintiff, who was represented by an attorney, participated in a hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On December 29, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision, applying the well-known five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a).

         At the first step, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 15, 2011, the alleged onset date. At the second step, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) was a severe impairment that significantly limited her physical ability to do basic work activities. However, none of her other impairments caused more than minimal functional limitations. For example, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's left wrist fracture had healed, and her hypertension was controlled and non-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 did not have any impairments, or combination of impairments, that met any listing, 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 her impairments. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff had the RFC to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c), but with certain environmental limitations necessitated by her COPD.

         At the final step of the evaluation, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff was not disabled because she was capable of performing her past relevant work as an assembler, production; cashier-checker; power-press operator with hand launderer; and cleaner, commercial or institutional.

         The Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. In December 2016, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. 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). 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” ...

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