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Fair v. Berryhill

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

April 17, 2018

RENEE M. FAIR, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN CHIEF JUDGE

         Plaintiff Renee M. Fair seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her application for disability and disability insurance benefits. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied her Social Security Disability benefits and erred by failing to give controlling weight to the Plaintiff's treating pain management specialist's opinion.

         BACKGROUND

         On September 24, 2012, the Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning on July 30, 2012. (R. 301-03.) Her claim was denied initially on February 5, 2013 (R. 151-64), and upon reconsideration on April 4, 2013 (166-78). On March 3, 2014, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge. (R. 183.) On May 19, 2014, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's application. (R. 192.) On August 8, 2015, the Appeals Council remanded the case back to the ALJ for further consideration of certain issues. (R. 198-201.) On December 15, 2015, the Plaintiff again appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (R. 31.) Mario Davila, a vocational expert (VE), also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.) On February 3, 2015, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's application, finding she was not disabled as of her alleged onset date. (R. 31-51) On January 17, 2017, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. 1-4.)

         On March 16, 2017, the Plaintiff filed this claim in federal court against the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         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 found that the Plaintiff has engaged in SGA since her alleged onset date, July 30, 2012, but that her work activity did not last six months and was more appropriately categorized as an unsuccessful work attempt, prompting further analysis. (R. 34.)

         In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting her ability to do basic work activities under § 404.1520(c). In this case, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including chronic low back pain due to lumbar spine degenerative disc/lumbar spondylosis/lumbar radiculitis, status post lumbar decompression/fusion surgery; fibromyalgia/fibromyositis/myalgias/myositis; and depression/bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder. (Id.) The ALJ found that these impairments caused more than minimal limitations in the Plaintiff's ability to perform the basic mental and physical demands of work. (Id.) The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's other alleged impairments were not severe impairments. (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 [the] listings in appendix 1 . . . .” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant's impairment(s), considered singly or in combination with other impairments, rise to this level, there is a presumption of disability “without considering [the claimant's] age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(d). But, if the impairment(s), either singly or in combination, fall short, the ALJ must proceed 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 “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).

         The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the listings in Appendix 1 and that she had the RFC to perform less than the full range light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The ALJ found that her capacities were further reduced in that:

She can stand/walk, in combination, for four hours during an eight-hour workday, but cannot do so for six hours. As to postural changes, she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch, but can never crawl or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. Otherwise, the claimant can sit for six hours during an eight-hour workday and lift, carry, push and pull up to ten pounds frequently and up to twenty pounds on an occasional basis. With respect to her work environment, she must avoid even moderate exposure to wetness and hazards (i.e. operational control of dangerous moving machinery, unprotected heights, and slippery/uneven/moving surfaces). Regarding her mental residual functional capacity, the claimant cannot perform tasks requiring intense/focused attention for extended periods. To minimize work distractions, the claimant should not work in close proximity to others on more than an occasional basis. She requires work that allows for a flexible pace, i.e., where the employee has some independence in determining either the timing of different work activities or the pace of work. The claimant can interact with the general-public on an occasional basis.

(R. 37.)

         After analyzing the record, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled as of her alleged onset date. The ALJ evaluated the objective medical evidence and the Plaintiff's subjective complaints and found that the Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms. But, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's testimony and prior statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were not entirely credible. The ALJ first noted that the Plaintiff's behavior and demeanor at the hearing were “not consistent with her claims.” (R. 38.) ...


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