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Beachy v. Berryhill

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

January 22, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Cynthia Beachy applied for social security disability benefits after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure and cardiomyopathy, among other conditions. Though she was able to return to part-time work after a period of recovery, she alleges that her conditions left her unable to work on a full-time basis. An administrative law judge concluded that Ms. Beachy could still perform light work and would be able to perform some of her past relevant work, so she found that Ms. Beachy was not disabled. Ms. Beachy now appeals that decision. For the reasons below, the Court remands this matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings.


         Cynthia Beachy suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for some time, though she was still able to maintain full-time employment. In April 2014, however, she began experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath, and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and cardiomyopathy. Tests showed that she had a very low ejection fraction, meaning a small amount of blood was being pumped through her heart on each beat. She was released from the hospital once her condition stabilized, but she remained off work. Over time her condition improved, and by September 2014 her ejection fraction began approaching normal levels. Ms. Beachy returned to work about two days a week as an assistant manager of a retail store around that time, but she claims that she was unable to work full-time because she fatigued easily and was unable to maintain exertion over the course of a workweek.

         Ms. Beachy applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, claiming that she became disabled in April 2014. In a decision issued in September 2016, an ALJ found that Ms. Beachy was not disabled. She concluded that Ms. Beachy retained the ability to perform light work, subject to some postural and environmental restrictions. In support of that finding, she relied in large part on Ms. Beachy's ability to work part time and the improvement in her heart conditions in the months following her April 2014 hospitalization. Based on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found that a person with Ms. Beachy's residual functional capacity could still perform some of Ms. Beachy's previous jobs, including working as a waitress or retail store manager. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Ms. Beachy was ineligible for benefits. Ms. Beachy appealed that decision, but the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Ms. Beachy therefore 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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