United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
KIMBERLY C. LOWERY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
P. SIMON, JUDGE
Kimberly C. Lowery appeals the Social Security
Administration's decision to deny her application for
disability insurance benefits. An administrative law judge
found that Lowery was not disabled within the meaning of the
Social Security Act. Lowery raises a number of challenges to
this determination, including that the ALJ did not properly
evaluate all of Lowery's impairments. I agree and,
therefore, I will reverse and remand on this issue.
was 48 years old at the time of her alleged disability onset
date. [A.R. at ¶ 30.] She has at least a high school
education. [Id.] Lowery previously worked primarily
as a hairstylist and, when the salon at which she was
employed closed, took a part-time as a teacher's
assistant with special education students. [Id. at
41, 44.] At her hearing before the ALJ, Lowery testified that
should could not be a hairstylist now because it requires her
to stand for too long of a period of time, the chemicals
would affect her breathing problems, and she would not be
able to lift the boxes for stocking. [Id. at 45.]
Lowery has a history of problems with her lungs. She
testified that she was treated for years for asthma and then
eventually was diagnosed with COPD. [Id. at 53.]
Lowery explained that she has swelling in her ankles and legs
that she believes has to do with her problems with her lungs.
[Id.] She testified that she took medication for her
breathing issues, used a nebulizer, and used rescue inhalers.
[Id. at 48-49.] She also testified that she had been
taking anxiety and depression medication for at least seven
or eight years and was taking several other types of
medication, including one for vertigo. [Id. at 49,
particular importance for present purposes, Lowery testified
that she had surgery in both of her hands in 2014, but was
still experiencing pain. [Id. at 51-52.] She
explained that if she had to use her hands on a frequent
basis, it would be a problem and that if she uses her hands,
she starts having pain that shoots up her arms. [Id.
at 52.] Lowery also testified about her vision problems,
explaining that she had a cornea transplant in her right eye
and has difficulty seeing out of it. [Id. at 53.]
Lowery also testified that she has nerve damage and problems
with her face and suffers from vertigo. [Id. at 51.]
the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits.
[Id. at 21-35.] At Step One, the ALJ found that
Lowery met the insured status requirements of the Social
Security Act and that she has not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since April 1, 2011, the alleged onset date.
[Id. at 23.] At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that
Lowery suffered from the following severe impairments:
chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), asthma, sleep
apnea and carpal tunnel syndrome. [Id.] The ALJ
concluded that Lowery's medically determinable mental
impairments of affective disorder and anxiety do not cause
more than minimal limitation in Lowery's ability to
perform basic mental work activities and are, therefore,
nonsevere. [Id.] At Step Three, the ALJ determined
that these various impairments did not meet or medically
equal the severity of one of the listed impairments.
[Id. at 25.] Next, the ALJ found that Lowery has the
residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined
in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and that:
[T]he claimant is able to lift and/or carry 20 pounds
occasionally and 10 pounds frequently and sit, stand and/or
walk for six hours in an eight hour workday, except: the
claimant is unable to climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, may
occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel,
crouch or crawl, can frequently by not constantly finger
bilaterally and must avoid concentrated exposure to humidity,
pulmonary irritants such as fumes, dust and gasses and
hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights.
[Id.] Given the RFC assigned by the ALJ, and based
on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded
that Lowery was not capable of performing her past relevant
work as a hairstylist, but that there are jobs that exist in
significant numbers in the national economy that Lowery could
perform. [Id. at 30-31.]
is not to determine from scratch whether or not Lowery is
disabled and entitled to benefits. Instead, my review of the
ALJ's findings is deferential, to determine whether the
ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the
decision is supported by substantial evidence. Shideler
v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 306, 310 (7th Cir. 2012);
Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 926 (7th Cir.
2010); Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th
Cir. 2008). If substantial evidence supports the
Commissioner's factual findings, they are conclusive. 42
“substantial evidence?” The term suggests a
rigorous review is required. But it's helpful on occasion
to remind ourselves just how low the Supreme Court has
defined the standard of review. The Court has told us that
while it is more than a “scintilla” of evidence,
it's less than a preponderance of the evidence.
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). The
review of an ALJ's findings is a light and deferential
makes two arguments as to how the ALJ erred, but I will focus
on her claim that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate all of
Lowery's impairments. [DE 11 at 16-20.] While the ALJ
need not discuss every piece of evidence, he cannot ignore
significant evidence supporting a claimant's claim.
See Golembiewski v. Barnhart, 322 F.3d 912, 917 (7th
Cir. 2003). Failure to discuss an entire line of evidence
make it “impossible for a reviewing court to tell
whether the ALJ's decisions rests upon substantial
completely failed to discuss several of Lowery's physical
impairments. The ALJ's opinion focuses on Lowery's
breathing problems, including asthma, COPD, and sleep apnea,
and fails to discuss her non- breathing- related impairments.
The ALJ included carpal tunnel syndrome in Lowery's list
of severe impairments, but his opinion is devoid of analysis
of this limitation and how, if it all, it needed to be
accounted for in his RFC determination. [A.R. at 23.] The RFC
determination contains the limitation that Lowery “can
frequently but not constantly finger bilaterally.” If
permitted, I might speculate that these limitations speak to
Lowery's carpal tunnel issues, but I am not sure how or
why because the ALJ's opinion contains no analysis beyond
the assertion that Lowery “has a history of carpal
tunnel release.” [Id. at 29.] Regardless, I am
not permitted to engage in this type of guesswork. The ALJ
listed carpal tunnel as a severe impairment, but included no
discussion regarding if or how it limited Lowery's
ability to perform basic work functions. As such, it is
impossible for me to review the ALJ's decision because I
have no idea how or why he made it.
also failed to discuss or otherwise indicate that he
considered the impact that Lowery's non-severe
impairments had on her ability to perform basic work
activities, which is a required part of the ALJ's
analysis. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545; SSR 96-8p.
Having found that one or more of Lowery's impairments was
“severe, ” “the ALJ needed to consider the
aggregate effect of this entire constellation of
ailments-including those impairments that in isolation are
not severe.” Golembiewski, 322 F.3d at 918.
“Although these impairments may not on their own be
disabling, that would only justify discounting their
severity, not ignoring them altogether.” Terry v.
Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 477 (7th Cir. 2009). The ALJ
failed to discuss Lowery's vision issues. Lowery
testified at her hearing that she had a cornea transplant in
her right eye and has difficulty seeing out of it. [A.R. at
53.] The record reflects that in November 2011, Lowery
underwent a corneal transplant due to keratoconus and severe
corneal scarring and experienced three rejection episodes in
February, May, and September of 2012. [Id. ...