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Paige-Armstrong v. Berryhill

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

March 13, 2018

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


          Mark J. Dinsmore United States Judge

         Plaintiff Sharon Paige-Armstrong (“Paige-Armstrong”) applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) on October 21, 2013, alleging an onset date of April 8, 2013. [Dkt. 10-5 at 2.] Her application was initially denied on February 7, 2014, [Dkt. 10-4 at 2], and upon reconsideration on May 20, 2014, [Dkt. 10-4 at 12]. Administrative Law Judge Judy Hilger Odell (the “ALJ”) held a hearing on October 6, 2015. [Dkt. 10-2 at 39-73.] The ALJ issued a decision on January 28, 2016, concluding that Paige-Armstrong was not entitled to receive disability insurance benefits. [Dkt. 10-2 at 15.] The Appeals Council denied review on March 9, 2017. [Dkt. 10-2 at 2.] On May 12, 2017, Paige-Armstrong timely filed this civil action, asking the Court to review the denial of benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c). [Dkt. 1.] For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED.


         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 her 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).



         Paige-Armstrong was 50 years old at the time she applied for DIB. [Dkt. 10-5 at 2.] She has at least a high school education and previously worked as a correctional officer. [Dkt. 10-2 at 28.][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 Paige-Armstrong is not disabled. [Dkt. 10-2 at 29.] The ALJ found as follows:

• At Step One, the ALJ found that Paige-Armstrong has not engaged in substantial gainful activity[2] since April 8, 2013, the alleged onset date. [Dkt. 10-2 at 20.]
• At Step Two, the ALJ found that Paige-Armstrong has the following severe impairments: diabetes, migraine[s], pancreatitis, “anxiety/depression/conversion disorder, ” obesity, and status post bilateral rotator cuff surgery. [Dkt. 10-2 at 20.]
• At Step Three, the ALJ found that Paige-Armstrong does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the ...

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