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Leason v. Berryhill

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

February 12, 2018

LESLEE E LEASON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON APPROPRIATE DISPOSITION OF THE ACTION

          Matthew P. Brookman United States Magistrate Judge.

         Leslee Leason brought this suit for judicial review of the denial of his application for Supplemental Security Income disability benefits. The district judge referred this Cause to the undersigned magistrate judge for submission of this report and recommended disposition. Order Referring Matter to Magistrate Judge [Docket. No. 18.]

         Standards

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's factual findings is deferential: courts must affirm if her findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Skarbek v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 500, 503 (7th Cir. 2004); Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, of the evidence. Wood v. Thompson, 246 F.3d 1026, 1029 (7th Cir. 2001). If the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that it adequately supports the Commissioner's decision, then it is substantial evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971); Carradine v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d 751, 758 (7th Cir. 2004). This limited scope of judicial review derives from the principle that Congress has designated the Commissioner, not the courts, to make disability determinations:

In reviewing the decision of the ALJ [administrative law judge], we cannot engage in our own analysis of whether [the claimant] is severely impaired as defined by the SSA regulations. Nor may we reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or, in general, substitute our own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Our task is limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.

Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Carradine, 360 F.3d at 758. While review of the Commissioner's factual findings is deferential, review of her legal conclusions is de novo. Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010).

         The Social Security Act defines disability 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), 1382(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). A person will be determined to be disabled only if his 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.”42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505, 404.1566, 416.905, 416.966. The combined effect of all of an applicant's impairments shall be considered throughout the disability determination process. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(B), 1382c(a)(3)(G); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1523, 416.923.

         The Social Security Administration has implemented these statutory standards in part by prescribing a “five-step sequential evaluation process” for determining disability. If disability status can be determined at any step in the sequence, an application will not be reviewed further. At the first step, if the applicant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, then he is not disabled. At the second step, if the applicant's impairments are not severe, then he is not disabled. A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Third, if the applicant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or medically equal the criteria of any of the conditions included in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, Appendix 1, Part A, then the applicant is deemed disabled. The Listing of Impairments are medical conditions defined by criteria that the Social Security Administration has pre-determined are disabling. 20 C.F.R. '§ 404.1525, 416.925. If the applicant's impairments do not satisfy the criteria of a listing, then her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) will be determined for the purposes of the next two steps. RFC is an applicant's ability to do work on a regular and continuing basis despite his impairment-related physical and mental limitations and is categorized as sedentary, light, medium, or heavy, together with any additional non-exertional restrictions. At the fourth step, if the applicant has the RFC to perform his past relevant work, then he is not disabled. Fifth, considering the applicant's age, work experience, and education (which are not considered at step four), and his RFC, the Commissioner determines if he can perform any other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 404.1520, 416.920(a)

         The burden rests on the applicant to prove satisfaction of steps one through four. The burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to establish that there are jobs that the applicant can perform in the national economy. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004). If an applicant has only exertional limitations that allow her to perform the full range of work at her assigned RFC level, then the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, Part A (the “grids”), may be used at step five to arrive at a disability determination. The grids are tables that correlate an applicant's age, work experience, education, and RFC with predetermined findings of disabled or not-disabled. If an applicant has non-exertional limitations or exertional limitations that limit the full range of employment opportunities at his assigned work level, then the grids may not be used to determine disability at that level. Instead, a vocational expert must testify regarding the numbers of jobs existing in the economy for a person with the applicant's particular vocational and medical characteristics. Lee v. Sullivan, 988 F.2d 789, 793 (7th Cir. 1993). The grids result, however, may be used as an advisory guideline in such cases.

         An application for benefits, together with any evidence submitted by the applicant and obtained by the agency, undergoes initial review by a state-agency disability examiner and a physician or other medical specialist. If the application is denied, the applicant may request reconsideration review, which is conducted by different disability and medical experts. If denied again, the applicant may request a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”).[1] An applicant who is dissatisfied with the decision of the ALJ may request the SSA's Appeals Council to review the decision. If the Appeals Council either affirms or declines to review the decision, then the applicant may file an action in district court for judicial review. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). If the Appeals Council declines to review a decision, then the decision of the ALJ becomes the final decision of the Commissioner for judicial review.

         Background

         At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Leason has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his application date in January 2013. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Leason has the severe impairments of seizure disorder; headaches; hand numbness; borderline intellectual functioning; major depressive disorder, recurrent, moderate, with anxious distress, moderate; psychotic disorder, not otherwise specified; and cannabis abuse and dependence. At step three, the ALJ found that Mr. Leason's impairments, severe and non-severe, singly and in combination, do not meet or medically equal any of the conditions in the listing of impairments.

         For steps four and five, the ALJ determined Mr. Leason's residual functional capacity. He found that Mr. Leason retained the capacity for work at all exertional levels, but with the following additional restrictions: (1) simple, unskilled work; (2) away from the general public; (3) only occasional interaction with supervisors and co-workers; (4) frequent, but not constant, handling, fingering, and feeling bilaterally; (5) no exposure to hazardous conditions such as heights or dangerous machinery; and (6) no reading.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Mr. Leason had no past relevant work to compare with the defined RFC. At step four, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert to find that, given Mr. Leason's age, education, skills, and RFC, there is a significant number of ...


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