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Rouse v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 19, 2018

ELIZABETH ROUSE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT CHIEF JUDGE

         The Plaintiff, Elizabeth Rouse, 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's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. An administrative law judge (ALJ) held a hearing on the Plaintiff's application, and on June 15, 2016, the ALJ issued a Decision holding that the Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits because she was not disabled under the relevant provisions of the Social Security Act. On October 11, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. The Plaintiff subsequently filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3).

         EVIDENCE OF RECORD

         The Plaintiff was born on April 24, 1961. (R. at 28, ECF No. 9.) The Plaintiff has a work history that includes working as a patient care representative and a customer service representative. (R. at 27.)

         In the present case, the Plaintiff claims to have become disabled on January 21, 2014, due to multiple physical and mental impairments, including nephrotic syndrome and residual symptoms from sepsis and septic pulmonary embolism with left kidney abscess and left pyelonephritis; right bimalleolar fracture (ankle), status-post open reduction internal fixation, healing slowly without complications; diabetes; peripheral neuropathy; osteopenia; gastroesophageal reflux disease with esophagitis; anemia; hypertension; intermitted claudication; and obesity. (R. at 21.)

         THE ALJ'S HOLDING

         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 be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work, but also any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The first step is to determine whether the claimant no longer engages in substantial gainful activity (SGA). Id. In the case at hand, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of disability, and thus, the Plaintiff satisfied the step one inquiry. (R. at 21.) In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting the ability to do basic work activities pursuant to § 404.1520(c). Here, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments, including nephrotic syndrome and residual symptoms from sepsis and septic pulmonary embolism with left kidney abscess and left pyelonephritis; right bimalleolar fracture (ankle), status-post open reduction internal fixation, healing slowly without complications; diabetes; and peripheral neuropathy were severe impairments because they significantly limited her ability to perform basic work activities. (Id.) The ALJ did not find that the Plaintiff's osteopenia, gastroesophageal reflux disease with esophagitis, anemia, hypertension, intermitted claudication, and obesity were severe. (Id.) Step three requires the ALJ to “consider the medical severity of [the] impairment” to determine whether the impairment “meets or equals one of [the] listings in appendix 1 . . . .” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant's impairment(s), considered singly or in combination with other impairments, rises to this level, he earns a presumption of disability “without considering [his] age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(d). But, if the impairment(s), either singly or in combination, falls short, an ALJ must move to step four and examine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (RFC)-the types of things he can still do physically, despite his limitations-to determine whether he can perform this “past relevant work, ” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), or whether the claimant can “make an adjustment to other work” given the claimant's “age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         In the case at hand, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, do not meet or equal any of the listings in Appendix 1 and that the Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work, as defined by § 404.1567(b),

except: lift twenty pounds occasionally; lift and carry ten pounds frequently; stand, walk, and sit for six hours each in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; never climb ramps or stairs; occasionally balance, stoop, knee[l], crouch, and crawl; push and pull within the lifting restrictions; avoid slick uneven terrain; avoid concentrated exposure [to] extreme cold and wetness; and avoid concentrated use of moving machinery and unprotected heights.

(R. at 22-23.)

         In arriving at the RFC, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause her alleged symptoms, “however, the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record . . . .” (R. at 23.)

         The ALJ began by summarizing the Plaintiff's testimony, including her testimony that she elevates her legs daily, has problems with her stamina, uses a cane to ambulate, can lift a gallon of milk, and can walk for five minutes. (R. at 23.) The ALJ then compared the Plaintiff's subjective complaints to the medical evidence in the record, detailing the Plaintiff's road to prolonged hospitalization beginning in January 2014 due to sepsis and septic pulmonary embolism with left kidney abscess and kidney infection, and the Plaintiff's rehabilitation. (Id.) The ALJ noted that as a result of this medical issue, though the Plaintiff complained of severe leg pain, weakness, and decreased motion in her legs, and testing revealed that she had sensory motor peripheral neuropathy[1] of the lower extremities, the Plaintiff underwent physical therapy efforts and had no denervation or significant lumbar radiculopathy[2] of the lower extremities. (R. at 24.) Moreover, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's claim that she must substantially use a wheelchair and cane for ambulation was not supported by the medical evidence. (R. at 27.)

         The ALJ also reviewed the medical assessment of Dr. Feliciano, the Plaintiff's treating physician. In particular, the ALJ reviewed Dr. Feliciano's statement dated May 22, 2014, in which Dr. Feliciano opined that the Plaintiff “is totally incapacitated” and “cannot stand or walk without assistance.” (R. at 650.) The ALJ also reviewed Dr. Feliciano's statement dated November 3, 2015, in which he opined that the Plaintiff has limited strength in her legs, is a fall risk, is incapacitated for the remainder of her lifetime, is permanently disabled with no possibility ...


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