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Smith v. Berryhill

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

January 22, 2018

AMANDA BRYANT SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ENTRY REVIEWING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          Hon. Jane Magnus-Stinson, Chief Judge United States District Court.

         Plaintiff Amanda Bryant (formerly known as Amanda Jo Smith) applied for disability insurance benefits from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) on August 13, 2014, alleging an onset date of August 11, 2014. [Filing No. 13-6 at 4.] Her application was initially denied on October 10, 2014, [Filing No. 13-5 at 2], and upon reconsideration on November 13, 2014, [Filing No. 13-5 at 7]. Administrative Law Judge Blanca B. de la Torre (the “ALJ”) held a hearing on April 6, 2016. [Filing No. 13-2 at 45-88.] The ALJ issued a decision on May 31, 2016, concluding that Ms. Bryant was not entitled to receive disability insurance benefits. [Filing No. 13-2 at 20-42.] The Appeals Council denied review on May 20, 2017. [Filing No. 13-2 at 2-4.] On June 6, 2017, Ms. Bryant timely filed this civil action, asking the Court to review the denial of benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). [Filing No. 1.]

         I.

         Standard of Review

         “The Social Security Act authorizes payment of disability insurance benefits … to individuals with disabilities.” Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214 (2002). “The statutory definition of ‘disability' has two parts. First, it requires a certain kind of inability, namely, an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. Second, it requires an impairment, namely, a physical or mental impairment, which provides reason for the inability. The statute adds that the impairment must be one that has lasted or can be expected to last … not less than 12 months.” Id. at 217.

         When an applicant appeals an adverse benefits decision, this Court's role is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). Because the ALJ “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008), this Court must afford the ALJ's credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong.” Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

         The ALJ must apply the five-step inquiry set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), evaluating the following, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently [un]employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the [Commissioner]; (4) whether the claimant can perform her past work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.

Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted) (alterations in original). “If a claimant satisfies steps one, two, and three, she will automatically be found disabled. If a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then she must satisfy step four. Once step four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.” Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).

         After Step Three, but before Step Four, the ALJ must determine a claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) by evaluating “all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009). In doing so, the ALJ “may not dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling.” Id.The ALJ uses the RFC at Step Four to determine whether the claimant can perform his own past relevant work and if not, at Step Five to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(iv), (v). The burden of proof is on the claimant for Steps One through Four; only at Step Five does the burden shift to the Commissioner. See Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

         If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits “is appropriate where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).

         II.

         Background

         Ms. Bryant was 33 years old at the time she applied for disability insurance benefits. [Filing No. 13-6 at 4.] She completed high school and contemporaneously earned a nurse assistant certificate. [Filing No. 13-2 at 33.] She previously worked as a cashier, certified nurse assistant, donut icer, food sales clerk and hand packager. [Filing No. 13-2 at 36.][1]

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the Social Security Administration in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) and ultimately concluded that Ms. Bryant is not disabled. [Filing No. 13-2 at 37.] The ALJ found as follows:

• At Step One, the ALJ found that Ms. Bryant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity[2] since December 31, 2011, the alleged onset date. [Filing No. 13-2 at 25.]
• At Step Two, the ALJ found that Ms. Bryant has the following severe impairments: obesity, history of resection, chemotherapy and radiation for left parieto-occipital spendymoblastoma, history of seizure disorder, borderline intellectual functioning and depressive disorder. [Filing No. 13-2 at 25-26.]
• At Step Three, the ALJ found that Ms. Bryant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. [Filing No. 13-2 at 26.]
• After Step Three but before Step Four, the ALJ found that Ms. Bryant has the RFC to “perform work at all exertional level[s] but with the following non-exertional limitations: [t]he claimant is able to stoop, crouch and kneel frequently. She can climb stairs and ramps, and balance occasionally. She cannot work on ladders, ropes or scaffolds, or crawl. The claimant cannot tolerate concentrated exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold, or respiratory irritants, such as fumes, odors, gases and poor ventilation. She can tolerate Noise Levels 1-3 as described by the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) and Selected Characteristics of Occupations in the DOT (SCODOT). The claimant cannot engage in commercial driving. She cannot work around work place hazards such as unprotected heights or dangerous, moving machinery. She cannot work in proximity to fire or open bodies of water, or have strobe/flashing lights in the immediate work area. The claimant is able to understand, remember and carry out short, simple, repetitive instructions. She is able to sustain attention/concentration for two-hour periods at a time for eight hours in the workday on short, simple repetitive tasks. The claimant is able to ...

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