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Webb v. Berryhill

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

March 27, 2018

MISTY RENE WEBB, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN CHIEF JUDGE.

         The Plaintiff, Misty Rene Webb, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). The sole issue presented to this Court is whether the Appeals Council erred by failing to remand on the basis of the evidence the Plaintiff provided to the Appeals Council as new and material.

         BACKGROUND

         In January 2013, the Plaintiff filed a claim for disability insurance benefits alleging disability since August 2011. In June 2015, the Plaintiff, who was represented by an attorney, appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ. The ALJ also heard testimony from the Plaintiff's husband, the Plaintiff's mother, and a vocational expert.

         The ALJ denied the Plaintiff's claim in a written decision dated November 10, 2015. In the written decision, the ALJ followed the five-step process as outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, he found that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of August 7, 2011, through the date she was last insured, December 31, 2014. At steps two and three, he found that the Plaintiff had a combination of severe impairments-lupus/arthralgias/arthritis and obesity-but that none of them met or equaled an impairment in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, or 404.1526. The ALJ also found that the evidence did not show that the Plaintiff's alleged depression and headaches were severe, or caused work-related limitations for twelve consecutive months.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with the exception that she avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, kneel, crouch, and crawl, and never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She was further prevented from performing work that requires forcefully grasping or gripping with hands.

         In making his RFC determination, the ALJ considered the relevant medical records and testimony from the Plaintiff and third parties. The ALJ found that the record revealed minimal need for medical treatment and medication from 2010 to 2013, improvements in complaints with conservative care, and minimal clinical findings on examination. The ALJ noted that it was understandable, given this history, that the February 2013 determination of the State Agency consultants was that the Plaintiff did not have any severe physical condition. However, based on some more recent evidence, “albeit established well after the date last insured, the ALJ [gave] the claimant's allegations and testimony some benefit of the doubt as to severity beyond that determined by the State Agency to be non-severe.” (R. 32.)

In doing so, the ALJ credit[ed] the likelihood that the combination of lupus with obesity more likely than not precluded prolonged standing, walking and heavy lifting consistent with a retained capacity for sustained work at light exertion with only occasional postural maneuvers absent requirement for climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The ALJ further credit[ed] testimony regarding worsening of symptoms when exposed to extreme cold and to testimony for limited use of the hands, which is somewhat evidenced after December 31, 2014, date last insured. In so doing, the ALJ preclude[d] work tasks involving forceful grasping and gripping with the hands.

(Id.)

         The ALJ then concluded that the Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a cashier and retail store manager prior to December 31, 2014. Additionally, other jobs existed in the national economy that the Plaintiff, as a 33-year old with at least a high school education, could perform with her limitations. As a result, the Plaintiff was not under a disability prior to her date last insured, and her claim was denied.

         On January 24, 2017, the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, so the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on the matter. In denying review, the Appeal Council stated that it considered the reasons the Plaintiff disagreed with the decision, and found that it did not provide a basis for changing the ALJ's decision. The Appeals Council additionally advised,

We also looked at the medical evidence from James Ehlich, dated July 21, to September 9, 2015 (16 pages); medical evidence from Trina Chapman-Smith, M.D., dated December 29, 2015 (3 pages); and medical evidence from Trina Chapman-Smith, M.D., dated December 29, 2015 (4 pages). The Administrative Law Judge decided your case through December 31, 2014, the date you were last insured for disability benefits. This new information is about a later time. Therefore, it does not affect the decision about whether you were disabled at the time you were last insured for disability benefits.

(R. 2.) The Appeals Council Notice advised the Plaintiff that if she wanted the Commissioner to consider whether she was disabled after December 31, 2014, she would need to apply for benefits again, and that the new information she submitted was ...


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