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Boyles v. Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration

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

March 12, 2018

ANGEL M. BOYLES, Plaintiff,
v.
ACTING COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT.

         The Plaintiff, Angel M. Boyles, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for supplemental security income. The Plaintiff claims that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) committed error when she did not develop a full and fair record for an unrepresented claimant, did not give controlling weight to the combined opinion of her treating psychiatrist and psychologist, and did not incorporate limits for concentration, persistence, and pace as part of the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity.

         For the reasons stated in this Opinion and Order, the Court finds that there exists a basis to remand for further review.

         BACKGROUND

         In July 2013, the Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income under Title XVI, alleging an onset date of October 1, 2012. She claimed an inability to work due to deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism. After her claim was denied initially, as well as upon reconsideration, the Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. On July 14, 2016, the Plaintiff participated in a video hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On September 23, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision, applying the well-known five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a).

         At the first step, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 2013, the application date. At the second step, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's obesity, status-post deep venous thrombosis, and a history of pulmonary embolism, degenerative joint disease of the left knee, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, a mood disorder secondary to substance abuse, and cannabis dependence were severe impairments that significantly limited her ability to do basic work-related activities. The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's history of gallstones did not cause more than minimal functional limitations. Additionally, her asthmatic bronchitis did not satisfy the durational requirements to be considered an impairment under the governing regulations.

         At step three, the ALJ considered whether the Plaintiff's impairments, or combination of impairments, met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed by the Administration as being so severe that it presumptively precludes substantial gainful employment. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. The ALJ considered several listings related to the Plaintiff's left knee impairment, her history of venous thrombosis, and mental impairments, but concluded that the Plaintiff did not have any impairments, or combination of impairments, that met a listing.

         Next, the ALJ was required, at step four, to determine the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC), which is an assessment of the claimant's ability to perform sustained work-related physical and mental activities in light of her impairments. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a), but modified to include additional exertional, postural, and environmental restrictions. The ALJ also included limitations to account for the Plaintiff's “moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace and her subjective complaints of problems with her memory.” (R. 34.) The RFC was stated as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the [RFC] to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a) except she can lift and carry a maximum of 10 pounds occasionally, less than 10 pounds frequently; she can stand and/or walk for up to two hours in an eight-hour workday, and sit for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday. She cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and cannot crawl; but she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, and occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch, but with clarification that when crouching or squatting, she could not be required to be in a static position for more than 60 seconds. She requires the option to alternate between si[t]ting and standing that specifically allows her to change from sitting to standing, o[r] from standing to sitting, every 60 minutes. She cannot have exposure to unprotected heights or dangerous moving machinery, and she cannot use foot pedals. Finally, she can understand, remember, and perform simple tasks, make simple decisions, and adapt to routine changes in the workplace.

(R. 30.)

         Although the ALJ found that the Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as a cashier, houseworker/general, or laborer/stores, she did conclude, at the final step of the evaluation, that the Plaintiff was capable of performing the representative occupations of order clerk, inspection, and parts polisher. Because the ALJ had determined that the Plaintiff could not perform the full range of sedentary work, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the vocational expert (VE) to determine whether jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy for an individual with the Plaintiff's age (32), education (high school education), work experience (unskilled), and RFC. The ALJ concluded that a finding of not disabled was appropriate.

         The Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. In February 2017, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Liskowitz v. Astrue, 559 F.3d 736, 739 (7th Cir. 2009). The Plaintiff seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A claimant is disabled only if she shows an 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). She has the burden of proving disability. See Id. § 423(d)(5)(A). She must establish that her physical or mental impairments “are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         A 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 is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It must be “more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). 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” ...


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