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Miller v. Berryhill

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

March 22, 2018

MERRI ELLEN MILLER, 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 Merri Ellen Miller applied in September 2012 for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging she has been disabled since May 2012. Acting for the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration following a hearing on July 7, 2015, administrative law judge Michael Carr issued a decision on August 25, 2015, that Ms. Miller is not disabled. The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision on November 15, 2016, rendering the ALJ's decision for the Commissioner final. Ms. Miller 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. Miller asserts that the Commissioner's decision must be reversed and remanded because (1) the ALJ did not address her counsel's post-hearing submission regarding vocational evidence; (2) the ALJ erred in his evaluation of a medical opinion; and (3) the ALJ's credibility analysis is flawed because he did not address Ms. Miller's lengthy work history.

         The court will first describe the legal framework for analyzing disability claims and the court's standard of review, and then address Ms. Miller'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. Miller 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 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 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 a listed impairment, then the claimant is presumptively disabled and qualifies for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

         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 vocational profile (age, work experience, and education) and RFC; if so, then she is not disabled.

         The claimant 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 vocational profile 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. Miller was born in 1962, was 50 years old as of her alleged disability onset date in May 2012, and was 53 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. Ms. Miller has a lengthy work history. Her earnings record shows that she accrued covered earnings in every quarter since she was 21 years old. (R. 224-25). The most recent work before her disability onset date was as a distribution clerk with the United States Postal Service. That job required standing 8 hours per work day and longer if one worked overtime, and a lot of lifting (an average of 20 to 25 pounds through the work day), pushing, pulling, bending, twisting, and stooping. (R. 42-45).

         At step one, the ALJ found Ms. Miller had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. At steps two and three, the ALJ identified certain severe impairments (obesity, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, residuals of deep vein thrombosis, and anxiety and affective disorders), but found that no listing was met or ...


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