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Bliss v. Berryhill

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

March 7, 2018




         The Plaintiff, Sandra Darlene Bliss, seeks review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her application for disability insurance benefits and for supplemental security income. The Plaintiff puts forth one basis for remand. For the reasons that follow, the Court affirms the final decision of the Acting Commissioner.


         On September 11, 2014, the Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (R. 18.) She also protectively filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on the same day. (Id.) In both applications, she alleged disability beginning September 5, 2014. (Id.) Her claims were denied initially on December 8, 2014, and upon reconsideration on March 6, 2015. (Id.) Thereafter, the Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. (Id.) The request was granted and on July 26, 2016, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id.) The Plaintiff's former spouse, Michael Bollinger, also testified at the hearing. (Id.) Amy Kutschbach, a vocational expert (VE), also appeared and testified at the hearing by telephone. (Id.) On September 2, 2016, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's application, finding she was not disabled through the date of the decision.[1] (R. 15-34.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on November 16, 2016, when the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 2-4.) On January 15, 2017, the Plaintiff filed this claim [ECF No. 1] in federal court against the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.


         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), 1382c(a)(3)(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), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The first step is to determine whether the claimant no longer engages in substantial gainful activity. Id. In the case at hand, the ALJ found that the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity from July 2015 to September 2015. (R. 20.) However, there was a continuous 12-month period during which the claimant did not engage in substantial activity. (R. 21.) The ALJ's decision addressed the period during which the Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity. (Id.)

         In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting her ability to do basic work activities under §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). In this case, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including low back pain due to spondylosis/multilevel degenerative changes, with radiculitis; bilateral trochanteric bursitis; bilateral knee pain with mild medical tilt/osteoarthritis of the knees; history of urinary stress incontinence, status post trans-obturator taping in October 2014, with overactive bladder problems; obesity and hypertension; depressive disorder/bipolar, anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder; and suggested borderline intellectual functioning. (R. 21.) The ALJ found that the medical evidence established that these impairments significantly affected the Plaintiff's ability to perform basic work activities and accordingly were severe within the meaning of the Social Security Act and regulations. (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 [the] listings in appendix 1 . . . .” §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant's impairment(s), considered singly or in combination with other impairments, rise to this level, there is a presumption of disability “without considering [the claimant's] age, education, and work experience.” §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). But, if the impairment(s), either singly or in combination, fall short, the ALJ must proceed to step four and examine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (RFC)-the types of things she can still do, despite her limitations-to determine whether she can perform “past relevant work” (§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(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), 416.920(a)(4)(v)).

         The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairs in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and that she had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.967(a), in that she could lift or carry ten pounds, using both hands, frequently or occasionally, and she could stand or walk up to two hours in an eight-hour workday and sit at least six hours in an eight-hour work day. (R. 24.) She did require further limitations:

[She] also needs a sit/stand option (which allows for alternating between sifting [sic] and standing up to every 30 minutes, if needed, but the positional change will not render the individual off task). She is limited to only occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling, but never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. Mentally, the claimant can have no fast-paced work or work requiring a regimented pace of production and no sudden or unpredictable workplace changes in terms of use of work tools, work processes, or work settings, and if there are workplace changes, they are introduced gradually. She is further limited to only occasional interactions with others, including supervisors, coworkers, and the general public.

(R. 24-25.)

         After analyzing the record, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled from her alleged onset date through the date of the ALJ's decision (August 30, 2016). (R. 34.) The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause her alleged symptoms, but that the Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of those symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record. (R. 27.) Finally, although the Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work, the ALJ found that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform given her age, education, work experience, and RFC. (R. 32-33.)

         STANDARD ...

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