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Bishop v. Berryhill

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

January 16, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Mark Duane Bishop applied for social security disability benefits, arguing that he was disabled due to his back pain, shoulder pain, obesity, and mental health, among other issues. The Commissioner found that Mr. Bishop was still capable of working a number of jobs despite his limitations, so it denied his application. Mr. Bishop now appeals that decision. For the reasons below, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands for further proceedings.


         Mr. Bishop worked for many years in jobs that were very physically demanding. He claims that he eventually had to quit at the age of 56, primarily due to extreme pain that he suffered in his back and shoulder. He thus applied for Disability Insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income benefits, claiming he was no longer able to work. He cited the pain from his back and shoulder due to degenerative disc and joint disease, which may have also been exacerbated by his obesity. He also had respiratory problems due to a history of smoking, and further claimed to have mental limitations due to depression and anxiety.

         Mr. Bishop's treating physician, Dr. Seluzhitskiy, completed a form in May 2013 outlining her opinion as to Mr. Bishop's physical limitations, indicating that Mr. Bishop was quite limited in his ability to lift, carry, stand, or walk, among other limitations. The agency reviewing physicians opined in July and August 2013 that Mr. Bishop was not nearly as limited, though. They opined that Mr. Bishop could lift up to 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, and that he could sit, stand, and walk up to 6 hours in a workday. After holding a hearing in April 2015, at which Mr. Bishop and a vocational expert testified, the Administrative Law Judge largely adopted the agency reviewing physicians' opinions in those respects, and gave little weight to the opinion of Mr. Bishop's treating physician. Based on the vocational expert's testimony that a person with those limitations could still perform other jobs, the ALJ found that Mr. Bishop did not qualify as disabled. Accordingly, the ALJ denied Mr. Bishop's claims. The Appeals Council denied review, making the Commissioner's decision final, so Mr. Bishop filed this action seeking review of that decision.


         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. Ultimately, 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).


         Disability benefits are available only to those individuals who can establish disability under the terms of the Social Security Act. 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 ...

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