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Buck v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

April 23, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on a Complaint [DE 1], filed by Plaintiff Stephanie Ann Buck on March 30, 2017, and Plaintiff's Opening Brief [DE 10], filed by Plaintiff on August 9, 2017. Plaintiff requests that the November 27, 2015 decision of the Administrative Law Judge denying her claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits or for further proceedings. On September 13, 2017, the Commissioner filed a response, and Plaintiff filed a reply on September 26, 2017. For the following reasons, the Court denies Plaintiff's request for remand.


         On September 4 and September 26, 2013, Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, respectively, alleging disability since July 19, 2013. The applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. On October 29, 2015, Administrative Law Judge Shane McGovern (“ALJ”) held a hearing. In attendance at the hearing were Plaintiff, Plaintiff's attorney Randall J. Zromkoski, and an impartial vocational expert. On November 27, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision denying benefits, making the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 19, 2013, the alleged onset date.
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: dysthymic disorder/depression; ADHD; anxiety disorder; learning disorder NOS; seronegative spondyloarthropathy; ankylosing spondylitis; fibromyalgia; morbid obesity; obstructive sleep apnea and asthma.
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except she could occasionally push/pull bilaterally; no operation of foot controls; never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; never kneel or crawl; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; occasionally balance, stoop and crouch; frequently handle, finger and feel bilaterally; no exposure to extreme cold or extreme heat; no exposure to excessive vibration; occasional exposure to irritants, such as fumes, odors, dusts, gases and poorly ventilated areas; no exposure to unprotected heights or dangerous moving machinery and occasional walking on uneven surfaces. She is further limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks and frequent interactions with coworkers, but only occasional interaction with the public and supervisors.
6. The claimant has no past relevant work.
7. The claimant was born [in 1987] and was 26 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49 on the alleged disability onset date.
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English.
9. Transferability of job skills is not an issue because the claimant does not have past relevant work.
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from July 19, 2013, through the date of this decision.

(AR 18-26).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, leaving the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. Plaintiff filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the Agency's decision.

         The parties filed forms of consent to have this case assigned to a United States Magistrate Judge to conduct all further proceedings and to order the entry of a final judgment in this case. Therefore, this Court has jurisdiction to decide this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The Social Security Act authorizes judicial review of the final decision of the agency and indicates that the Commissioner's factual findings must be accepted as conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Thus, a court reviewing the findings of an ALJ will reverse only if the findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ has applied an erroneous legal standard. See Briscoe v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005) (quoting Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003)).

         A court reviews the entire administrative record but does not reconsider facts, re-weigh the evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See Boiles v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 421, 425 (7th Cir. 2005); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000); Butera v. Apfel, 173 F.3d 1049, 1055 (7th Cir. 1999). Thus, the question upon judicial review of an ALJ's finding that a claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is not whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled, but whether the ALJ “uses the correct legal standards and the decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Roddy v. Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2010); Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 734-35 (7th Cir. 2006); Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004)). “[I]f the Commissioner commits an error of law, ” the Court may reverse the decision “without regard to the volume of evidence in support of the factual findings.” White v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 369, 373 (7th Cir. 1999) (citing Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997)).

         At a minimum, an ALJ must articulate his analysis of the evidence in order to allow the reviewing court to trace the path of his reasoning and to be assured that the ALJ considered the important evidence. See Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002); Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 307 (7th Cir. 1995); Green v. Shalala, 51 F.3d 96, 101 (7th Cir. 1995). An ALJ must “‘build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [the] conclusion' so that [a reviewing court] may assess the validity of the agency's final decision and afford [a claimant] meaningful review.” Giles v. Astrue, 483 F.3d 483, 487 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Scott, 297 F.3d at 595)); see also O'Connor-Spinner, 627 F.3d at 618 (“An ALJ need not specifically address every piece of evidence, but must provide a ‘logical bridge' between the evidence and his conclusions.”); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 889 (7th Cir. 2001) (“[T]he ALJ's analysis must provide some glimpse into the reasoning behind [the] decision to deny benefits.”).


         To be eligible for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that she suffers from a “disability” as defined by the Social Security Act and regulations. The Act defines “disability” as an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). To be found disabled, the claimant's impairment must not only prevent her from doing her previous work, but considering her age, education, and work experience, it must also prevent her from engaging in any other type of substantial gainful activity that exists in significant numbers in the economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e)-(f), 416.920(e)-(f).

         When a claimant alleges a disability, Social Security regulations provide a five-step inquiry to evaluate whether the claimant is entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The steps are: (1) Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity? If yes, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no, the inquiry proceeds to step two; (2) Does the claimant have an impairment or combination of impairments that are severe? If no, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if yes, the inquiry proceeds to step three; (3) Do(es) the impairment(s) meet or equal a listed impairment in the appendix to the regulations? If yes, the claimant is automatically considered disabled; if no, then the inquiry proceeds to step four; (4) Can the claimant do the claimant's past relevant work? If yes, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no, then the inquiry proceeds to step five; (5) Can the claimant perform other work given the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), age, education, and experience? If yes, then the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v); see also Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699-700 (7th Cir. 2004).

         At steps four and five, the ALJ must consider an assessment of the claimant's RFC. The RFC “is an administrative assessment of what work-related activities an individual can perform despite [her] limitations.” Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1178 (7th Cir. 2001). The RFC should be based on evidence in the record. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 676 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3)). The claimant bears the burden of proving steps one through four, whereas the burden at step five is on the ALJ. Zurawski, 245 F.3d at 885-86; see also Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).


         Plaintiff receives mental health treatment from Porter-Starke Services for dysthymic disorder, neurotic depression, learning disorder, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) predominately inattentive-type. (AR 302).[1] In June and July 2013, treatment notes show depressed mood but intact mental status with normal cognition, memory, thought content, and gait and station. (AR 308, 312). Plaintiff reported she was doing well on her medications. (AR 312). Her medication was switched from Prozac to Cymbalta in July 2013, and she subsequently reported through November 2013 that the Cymbalta worked well and that she had good sleep and was able to babysit. (AR 309, 587, 589, 591, 593, 597). In October 2013, Plaintiff reported that she was doing well on her current medications; however, she was trying to cope with social relationship stressors. (AR 593).

         In October 2013, Plaintiff received treatment at HealthLinc with a social worker, and the records show mild depression and that journaling helped with stress management. (AR 333, 335). During this time period, Plaintiff treated with a physician and nurse practitioner and occasionally complained of hip, back, and leg pain, though examinations were unremarkable. (AR 607-619).

         In October 2013, Plaintiff underwent a consultative examination with Dr. Bharat Pithadia, to whom she described a history of mental health issues but reported being fine and that her medications helped. (AR 599). Dr. Pithadia noted mild cognitive impairment but stated that Plaintiff answered questions fully and appropriately and was not affected in her daily activities by cognitive limitations. (AR 601). Dr. Pithadia noted that Plaintiff had nonantalgic gait without assistive devices, she had no difficulty getting on and off the table, she could walk on heels and toes and had a normal tandem gait, she could squat, and she had grossly normal range of motion in the neck. (AR 599-601). However, Dr. Pithadia found Plaintiff to have a positive straight leg raise test and limited range of motion in the lumbar spine. (AR 600-01). The physical examination was otherwise normal with full range of motion in the upper and lower extremities. (AR 601). Dr. Pithadia found Plaintiff to have normal power in her hands and commented that Plaintiff's “range of motion with respect to the back was more than adequate.” (AR 601). As for physical impairments, Dr. Pithadia noted “none was detected.” (AR 601).

         On April 26, 2014, Plaintiff presented to the emergency room with complaints of generalized body aches. (AR 636). Plaintiff reported that she has fibromyalgia, that she had trigger points shots in her back the day before, and that she had started to get spasms in her back three hours earlier. Id. Physical examination revealed lower back tenderness, pain, and spasm but normal sensation and strength, and she was not prescribed any new medications. (AR 638-39). On May 24, 2014, an x-ray of her thoracic spine ...

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