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Othersen v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 15, 2018

STEPHANIE LYNN OTHERSEN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN CHIEF JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Stephanie Othersen seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. The Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. An administrative law judge (ALJ) held a hearing on the Plaintiff's application, and on August 26, 2016, the ALJ issued a Decision holding that the Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits because she was not disabled under the relevant provisions of the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. The Plaintiff subsequently filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3).

         BACKGROUND

         The Plaintiff was born on May 7, 1975. (R. at 222, ECF No. 9.) The Plaintiff has previously worked as a data entry clerk, general clerk, and warehouse worker. (R. at 352.) In the present case, the Plaintiff claims to have become disabled on February 1, 2002, due to multiple mental impairments, including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and personality disorder. (Pl. Opening Br. 2, ECF No. 15.)

         THE ALJ'S HOLDING

         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). 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).

         An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The first step is to determine whether the claimant no longer engages in substantial gainful activity (SGA). Id. In the case at hand, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had engaged in SGA in 2011. (R. at 22.) Thus, the ALJ held that the Plaintiff could not be found to be disabled prior to January 2012. (Id.) However, after that date, the Plaintiff did satisfy the step one inquiry. (Id.) In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting the ability to do basic work activities pursuant to § 404.1520(c). Here, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and personality disorder are severe impairments because they significantly limit her ability to perform basic work activities. (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] listings in appendix 1 . . . .” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant's impairment(s), considered singly or in combination with other impairments, rises to this level, she earns a presumption of disability “without considering her age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(d). But, if the impairment(s), either singly or in combination, falls short, an ALJ must move to step four and examine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (RFC)-the types of things she can still do physically, despite her limitations-to determine whether she can perform this “past relevant work, ” § 404.1520(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).

         In the case at hand, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, do not meet or equal any of the listings in Appendix 1, (R. at 22), and that the Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work, as defined by § 404.1567(b),

However, she has non-exertional limitations to the extent she cannot understand, remember, or carry out detailed or complex job instructions. She is capable of performing simple repetitive tasks on a sustained basis (meaning eight hours a day/five days a week or on an equivalent work schedule) that do not require her to work at a fast pace or at a regimented pace of production. To minimize distractions, it is best the claimant only occasionally works in close proximity to others. As to other social interactions, the claimant should not be exposed to intense or critical supervision or have to interact with the general public on more than an occasional basis or interact with the general public, co-workers, and supervisors on more than a casual, superficial basis.

(R. at 25.)

         At the final step of the evaluation, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff was not disabled because there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the Plaintiff can perform. (R. at 34.) The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff can work as a packager, sorter, and inspector. (Id.)

         The Plaintiff subsequently sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. 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 now seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The decision of the ALJ is the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denies a request for review. Liskowitz, 559 F.3d at 739. 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 ‚Äúsuch relevant evidence as a ...


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