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Collins v. Berryhill

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

April 27, 2018

JA-ANN M. COLLINS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          William C. Lee, Judge

         This matter is before the court for judicial review of a final decision of the defendant Commissioner of Social Security Administration denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) as provided for in the Social Security Act. Section 205(g) of the Act provides, inter alia, "[a]s part of his answer, the [Commissioner] shall file a certified copy of the transcript of the record including the evidence upon which the findings and decision complained of are based. The court shall have the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner], with or without remanding the case for a rehearing." It also provides, "[t]he findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive. . . ." 42 U.S.C. §405(g).

         The law provides that an applicant for DIB must establish an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of no less than 12 months. . . ." 42 U.S.C. §416(i)(1); 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A). A physical or mental impairment is "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(3). It is not enough for a plaintiff to establish that an impairment exists. It must be shown that the impairment is severe enough to preclude the plaintiff from engaging in substantial gainful activity. Gotshaw v. Ribicoff, 307 F.2d 840 (7th Cir. 1962), cert. denied, 372 U.S. 945 (1963); Garcia v. Califano, 463 F.Supp. 1098 (N.D.Ill. 1979). It is well established that the burden of proving entitlement to disability insurance benefits is on the plaintiff. See Jeralds v. Richardson, 445 F.2d 36 (7th Cir. 1971); Kutchman v. Cohen, 425 F.2d 20 (7th Cir. 1970).

         Given the foregoing framework, "[t]he question before [this court] is whether the record as a whole contains substantial evidence to support the [Commissioner's] findings." Garfield v. Schweiker, 732 F.2d 605, 607 (7th Cir. 1984) citing Whitney v. Schweiker, 695 F.2d 784, 786 (7th Cir. 1982); 42 U.S.C. §405(g). "Substantial evidence is defined as 'more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Rhoderick v. Heckler, 737 F.2d 714, 715 (7th Cir. 1984) quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1410, 1427 (1971); see Allen v. Weinberger, 552 F.2d 781, 784 (7th Cir. 1977). "If the record contains such support [it] must [be] affirmed, 42 U.S.C. §405(g), unless there has been an error of law." Garfield, supra at 607; see also Schnoll v. Harris, 636 F.2d 1146, 1150 (7th Cir. 1980).

         In the present matter, after consideration of the entire record, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) made the following findings:

1. The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2013 (Ex. 5D).
2. The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her amended alleged onset date of April 5, 2013 through her date last insured of December 31, 2013 (Ex 3D, 4D, 5D, 7D)(20 CFR 404.1571 et seq.).
3. Through the date last insured, the claimant had the following severe impairments: attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, generalized anxiety disorder; affective disorders (variously characterized as bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder), borderline personality disorder, PTSD, and possible psychogenic dystonia (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. Through the date last insured, the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she was unable to engage in complex or detailed tasks but she was able to perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks.
6. Through the date last insured, the claimant was unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565).
7. The claimant was born on April 19, 1973 and was 40 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date last insured (20 CFR 404.1563).
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
10. Through the date last insured, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed (20 CFR 404.1569 and 404.1569(a)).
11. The claimant was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from April 5, 2013, the amended alleged onset date, through December 31, 2013, the date last insured (20 CFR 404.1520(g)).

(Tr. 20-30).

         Based upon these findings, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability insurance benefits. The ALJ's decision became the final agency decision when the Appeals Council denied review. This appeal followed.

         Plaintiff filed her opening brief on January 25, 2018. On February 26, 2018, the defendant filed a memorandum in support of the Commissioner's decision, to which Plaintiff replied on March 22, 2018. Upon full review of the record in this cause, this court is of the view that the ALJ's decision should be remanded.

         A five step test has been established to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See Singleton v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 710, 711 (7th Cir. 1988); Bowen v. Yuckert, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2290-91 (1987). The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has summarized that test as follows:

The following steps are addressed in order: (1) Is the claimant presently unemployed? (2) Is the claimant's impairment "severe"? (3) Does the impairment meet or exceed one of a list of specific impairments? (4) Is the claimant unable to perform his or her former occupation? (5) Is the claimant unable to perform any other work within the economy? An affirmative answer leads either to the next step or, on steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. A negative answer at any point, other than step 3, stops the inquiry and leads to a determination that the claimant is not disabled.

Nelson v. Bowen, 855 F.2d 503, 504 n.2 (7th Cir. 1988); Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir. 1985); accord Halvorsen v. Heckler, 743 F.2d 1221 (7th Cir. 1984). From the nature of the ALJ's decision to deny benefits, it is clear that Step 5 was the determinative inquiry.

         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance benefits in August 2014. (Tr. 148-149). SSA denied the application in January 2015 finding that the evidence was insufficient to establish a disabling condition prior to December 31, 2013, the date Plaintiff was last insured for disability benefits. (Tr. 89-92, 165). Plaintiff timely filed a request for reconsideration which was denied in March 2015. (Tr. 95-98). In response to a timely-filed request, ALJ Steven McNeary held a hearing on May 25, 2016, and Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing along with her spouse, Heath Collins, and a vocational expert witness, Amy Kutschbach. (Tr. 37). Attorney Ann Trzynka appeared at the hearing and represented Plaintiff. (Tr. 37-71).

         On August 3, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act. (Tr. 15-36). Plaintiff asked SSA's Appeals Council to review the unfavorable decision. (Tr. 14). On June 28, 2017, the Appeals Council denied review. (Tr. 1-5). Thereafter, Plaintiff timely filed her complaint in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Plaintiff was born on April 19, 1973, and was considered a “younger person” as of her alleged onset date. (Tr. 72). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c). Plaintiff has at least a high school education and a history of performing semi-skilled work at the sedentary to medium exertional levels. (Tr. 67, 230). Plaintiff last worked in August 2008. (Tr. 40, 162). She was employed at that time as a detention officer ...


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