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Johnson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

March 19, 2018

RICKY A. JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         Ricky A. Johnson is a 57-year-old man who left school in the eighth grade and has worked as a construction laborer and a factory machine operator. [AR at 183, 176, 197.][2] He stopped working on November 27, 2012, just prior to a second surgery on his cervical spine. [AR at 176, 182.] He had also previously had a surgery on his lumbar spine in 2007. [AR at 54.] Citing pain in his back and neck, and difficulty lifting and gripping, Johnson applied for Social Security disability benefits. [AR at 190, 54.]

         Johnson had a hearing before a Social Security administrative law judge on July 9, 2015, at which Johnson appeared and gave testimony. [AR at 36-72.] The ALJ issued a written decision denying Johnson's claim for benefits on July 23, 2015. [AR 20-35.] The ALJ found that Johnson has severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spines, status post lumbar fusion and cervical fusion, arthritis of the left acromioclavicular joint, depression and anxiety. [AR at 22.] The ALJ concluded that Johnson‘s severe impairments do not conclusively establish disability by meeting or medically equaling the severity of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [Id. at 23.] The ALJ also found that Johnson possessed the residual functional capacity to perform light work with limitations, that he was capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and that Johnson is not disabled. [AR at 25, 34, 35.] The Social Security Administration's Appeals Council denied Johnson's request for further review. [AR at 1.] This case is Johnson's appeal from the denial of disability insurance benefits.

         Standard of Review

         Johnson asks me to reverse the ALJ's decision or remand the case for further proceedings by the Social Security Administration. My review of the ALJ's decision is deferential. I must affirm it if it is supported by substantial evidence, meaning “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” McKinzey v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 889 (7th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). I cannot reweigh the evidence or substitute my judgment for that of the ALJ. Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015). But these standards do not mean that I “will simply rubber-stamp the Commissioner's decision without a critical review of the evidence.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). “In rendering a decision, an ALJ is not required to provide a complete and written evaluation of every piece of testimony and evidence, but ‘must build a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.'” Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015), quoting Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005).

         Medical Opinion Evidence

         Johnson's first challenge to the ALJ's decision is that his treatment of various medical opinion evidence was faulty. Medical opinions are considered by the ALJ in formulating a claimant's residual functional capacity. RFC is the disability term for the description of what a claimant is able to do despite functional limitations from medical impairments, and represents the Commissioner's determination of the individual's “capacity to perform work-related physical and mental activities.” POMS DI 24510.001(A)(1).

         In this case, the ALJ found that Johnson had the RFC:

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except than he can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can do no more than occasional head turning or looking up or down. He can perform frequent fingering and feeling bilaterally, but have no exposure to hazards such as wet, uneven terrain or unprotected heights. Due to moderate limitations in social functioning, the claimant is limited to frequent interaction with coworkers and the general public and only occasional interaction with supervisors.

[AR at 25.]

         Under §404.1567(b):

Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds. Even though the weight lifted may be very little, a job is in this category when it requires a good deal of walking or standing, or when it involves sitting most of the time with some pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls.

         By its silence on certain capabilities, the ALJ's RFC suggests no limits on Johnson's ability to sit, walk or stand, and an ability to frequently lift or carry 10 pounds, and to lift up to 20 pounds. In rendering this RFC opinion, the ALJ gave great weight to (that is, agreed with and adopted) the conclusions of state agency medical consultant Dr. J. Sands, who completed an RFC assessment on June 17, 2013. [AR at 31-32, 78-80.] The ALJ offers no explanation for favoring Dr. Sands' opinion over that of other doctors with differing opinions about Johnson's capabilities.

         The ALJ had the benefit of a number of medical opinions in arriving at his RFC assessment. One of Johnson's treating physicians is Dr. Julian Ungar-Sargon, a neurologist and specialist in pain management. Dr. Ungar-Sargon provided a Medical Source Statement in which he offered his opinions about Johnson's work-related limitations. Dr. Ungar-Sargon concluded that Johnson could only rarely lift or carry up to 10 pounds, and could never lift or carry more, based on severe carpal tunnel syndrome as shown on EMG. [AR at 996.] Due to chronic lumbar spine issues shown on EMG, Dr. Ungar-Sargon opined that Johnson could sit 2 hours at a time and a total of 3 hours in an 8-hour work day, and that Johnson could stand or walk for an hour at a time and a total of 2 hours in an 8-hour work day. [AR at ...

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