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Sutton v. Berryhill

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

May 4, 2018




         Plaintiff Cathy Jo Sutton seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her application for disability and disability insurance benefits as well as supplemental security income. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied her Social Security benefits and erred by failing to incorporate the limiting effects of all of her impairments into her residual functional capacity, failing to give appropriate weight to the opinions of various treating physicians, and relying on improper considerations when evaluating the Plaintiff's credibility.


         On December 7, 2010, the Plaintiff filed a Title II application for disability and disability insurance benefits as well as a Title XVI application for supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning October 9, 2010. (R. 563.) Her claims were denied initially on February 15, 2011, upon reconsideration on April 19, 2011, and after a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on May 16, 2012. (Id.) After the Appeals Council denied her request for review, the Plaintiff appealed the decision to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, which, on September 21, 2015, remanded the claims for further proceedings. (Id.) On May 25, 2016, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. (Id.) Also appearing were James Haynes M.D., a board certified neurologist who acted as an impartial medical expert, and Robert Barkhaus, Ph.D., an impartial vocational expert (VE). (Id.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied her request for review. (R. 560-62.)

         On January 3, 2017, the Plaintiff filed this claim in federal court against the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.


         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 been unable to engage in SGA since her alleged onset date, October 9, 2010. (R. 566.)

         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 a history of chronic abdominal/gastrointestinal pain due to apparent scar tissue/adhesions from prior abdominal surgeries; digestive system problems (including irritable bowel syndrome, gastritis, GERD, hiatal hernia, diverticulosis, fatty infiltrates in the liver, and liver cysts); disorders of the back and neck (including scoliosis, arthropathy, bilateral sacroilitis, degenerative changes in the cervical spine, hemongioma at T10, perineural cysts at the T5-11 neural foramina, and multilevel disc protrusions in the thoracic spine); myofascial pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, mega cisterna magna with headaches, obesity, pain disorder, mood disorder/depression (with and without psychosis), anxiety disorder, and history of cannabis use/dependence. (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, including foot problems, kidney problems, elbow problems/bilateral epicondylitis, urinary tract infections, swollen glands in her neck, sinus problems, atrial enlargement, and tachycardia, 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 sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), (lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently and, in an eight-hour period, sitting for a total of 6 hours and standing/walking for a total of 2 hours) except:

[S]he would need a sit/stand option (where she can change positions throughout the eight-hour workday but can pay attention to the task at hand). In addition, the claimant is only occasionally able to climb, balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch. She is also limited to unskilled work, meaning that she is able to understand, remember, and carry out only simple, routine tasks and sustain these tasks throughout the eight-hour workday. She can perform tasks that do not involve other than a flexible work pace or more than brief, routine interactions with others.

(R. 568-69.)

         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. (R. 570.) But, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's, and the Plaintiff's daughter's, testimony and prior statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were “not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” (R. 571.) The Plaintiff testified that she had a limited ability to lift and carry due to pain in her back and abdomen, that she had to rest for the remainder of the day after only 30-60 minutes of activity, that she needed to readjust her position every 10-15 minutes, and that she stayed in bed 12-16 days per month. (R. 569.) She also stated that she had trouble managing her checkbook due to mental impairments and that she had difficulty squatting, bending, reaching, kneeling, and climbing stairs. (Id.) The Plaintiff's daughter stated that the Plaintiff spent a lot of time in bed, that she was in pain, that she experienced nausea, that she had difficulty sleeping, that she required many breaks while doing household chores, and that she had difficulty handling stress, getting along with authority figures, concentrating, and finishing tasks. (R. 569-70.) However, the ALJ noted that the Plaintiff had a sporadic work history, undermining her credibility, and was “able to engage in at least a somewhat full range of activities, ” including maintaining a long-term relationship, handling her own personal grooming, taking medications without reminders, surfing the internet, cooking, light gardening, doing laundry, driving, going out alone, shopping for groceries, paying bills, counting change, ...

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