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Gillette v. Berryhill

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

March 22, 2018

DEBORA L. GILLETTE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security, Administration, Defendant.

          DECISION ON COMPLAINT FOR JUDICIAL REVIEW

          Debra McVicker Lynch United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Debora L. Gillette applied in September 2013 for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging that she has been disabled since September 2, 2007. Acting for the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration following a hearing held October 5, 2015, administrative law judge John H. Metz issued a decision on October 20, 2015, finding that Ms. Gillette was not disabled before her date last insured (December 31, 2012) under the DIB program. The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision on October 21, 2016, rendering the ALJ's decision for the Commissioner final. Ms. Gillette timely filed this civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the Commissioner's decision. The parties consented to the magistrate judge conducting all proceedings and ordering the entry of judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73.

         Ms. Gillette contends the Commissioner's decision must be reversed and remanded because (1) the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) finding is not based on substantial evidence and (2) the vocational expert's opinion was not consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, and the ALJ failed properly to inquire about and address those inconsistencies.

         The court will first describe the legal framework for analyzing disability claims and the court's standard of review, and then address Ms. Gillette's specific assertions of error.

         Standard for Proving Disability

         To prove disability, a claimant must show she is unable 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Ms. Gillette is disabled if her impairments are of such severity that she is not able to perform the work she previously engaged in and, if based on her age, education, and work experience, she cannot engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) has implemented these statutory standards by, in part, prescribing a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         Step one asks if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if she is, then she is not disabled. Step two asks whether the claimant's impairments, singly or in combination, are severe; if they are not, then she is not disabled. A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). The third step is an analysis of whether the claimant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or medically equal the criteria of any of the conditions in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The Listing of Impairments includes medical conditions defined by criteria that the SSA has predetermined are disabling, so that if a claimant meets all of the criteria for a listed impairment or presents medical findings equal in severity to the criteria for the most similar listed impairment, then the claimant is presumptively disabled and qualifies for benefits. Sims v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 424, 428 (7th Cir. 2002).

         If the claimant's impairments do not satisfy a listing, then her residual functional capacity (RFC) is determined for purposes of steps four and five. RFC is a claimant's ability to do work on a regular and continuing basis despite her impairment-related physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. At the fourth step, if the claimant has the RFC to perform her past relevant work, then she is not disabled. The fifth step asks whether there is work in the relevant economy that the claimant can perform, based on her age, work experience, and education (which are not considered at step four), and her RFC; if so, then she is not disabled.

         The individual claiming disability bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). If the claimant meets that burden, then the Commissioner has the burden at step five to show that work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, given her age, education, work experience, and functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2); Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004).

         Standard for Review of the ALJ's Decision

          Judicial review of the Commissioner's (or ALJ's) factual findings is deferential. A court must affirm if no error of law occurred and if the findings are supported by substantial evidence. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7thCir. 2001). Substantial evidence means evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id. The standard demands more than a scintilla of evidentiary support, but does not demand a preponderance of the evidence. Wood v. Thompson, 246 F.3d 1026, 1029 (7th Cir. 2001).

         The ALJ is required to articulate a minimal, but legitimate, justification for his decision to accept or reject specific evidence of a disability. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004). The ALJ need not address every piece of evidence in his decision, but he cannot ignore a line of evidence that undermines the conclusions he made, and he must trace the path of his reasoning and connect the evidence to his findings and conclusions. Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 592 (7thCir. 2012); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).

         Analysis

          I. The ALJ's Sequential Findings

         Ms. Gillette was born in 1959 and was 48 years old at the alleged onset of her disability in September 2007. Ms. Gillette's date last insured for purposes of the DIB program is December 31, 2012; thus, to receive benefits, she must have become disabled on or before that date. Shideler v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 306, 311 (7th Cir. 2012) (claimant must establish that disabled before expiration of her insured status).

         Ms. Gillette's most recent job before she stopped working in 2007 was as a certified nursing assistant between 1999 and 2007. She stopped working because of a knee injury. (R. 42-44).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Gillette had not worked since her alleged onset date. At steps two and three, the ALJ found that through the date last injured, Ms. Gillette had severe impairments of bilateral knee impairments, back pain, asthma/COPD, hearing loss, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, but that no listing was met or medically equaled. Ms. Gillette does not challenge the ALJ's steps one through three findings.

         For the RFC before the date last insured, the ALJ relied on the hearing testimony of a medical expert (Dr. John A. Pella) and found that before her date last insured, Ms. Gillette ...


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