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Rector v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

May 10, 2018

MICHELLE LEE RECTOR, Plaintiff,
v.
ACTING COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN CHIEF JUDGE

         The Plaintiff, Michelle Lee Rector, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for supplemental security income. The Plaintiff claims that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) committed error when he did not develop a full and fair record for an unrepresented claimant, which impacted the limitations he identified in the residual functional capacity, and when he did not award at least a closed period of disability.

         For the reasons stated in this Opinion and Order, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         BACKGROUND

         In December 2013, the Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income under Title XVI, alleging an onset date of February 11, 2013. She claimed an inability to work due to a compound fracture of her right foot and ankle, which she sustained in a car accident. An ALJ conducted a hearing, in which the Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) participated. He issued a written decision on May 23, 2016, denying the Plaintiff's request for benefits. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision, thereby making it the Agency's final decision for purposes of judicial review. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.1455(b), 416.1481, 422.210(a).

         In the written decision, the ALJ followed the five-step process outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). At step one, he found that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date. At steps two and three, he found that the Plaintiff had a combination of severe impairments-fracture of right fibula, talus, open ankle fracture status-post open reduction internal fixation, osteochondral lesion of right talus status-post arthroscopy with excision, diffuse osteopenia, post-traumatic arthritis, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, and status-post right Achilles tendon lengthening, right medial cuneiform osteotomy and total ankle replacement-but that none of them met or equaled an impairment in 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, or 416.926. The ALJ noted that the Plaintiff had fractured her right ankle in February 2013 and undergone three surgical interventions, but that the record did not reflect gross anatomical deformity or inability to ambulate effectively for a continuous period of twelve months. Rather, the Plaintiff returned to weight bearing status within a few months after each surgery. While the Plaintiff had an antalgic gait, she was able to ambulate effectively with assistive devices.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a). Additionally, she could lift/carry and push/pull no more than ten pounds. The Plaintiff could sit for six hours with her right foot elevated twelve inches off the ground, and could stand or walk with the use of crutches no more than two hours out of an eight-hour day. The ALJ further found that the Plaintiff was limited to occasional climbing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and climbing ramps and stairs. She could never crawl or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds.

         At the final steps, the ALJ concluded that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform given her age, education, work experience, and RFC. The ALJ thus determined that the Plaintiff had not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act since December 4, 2013, the date of her application.

         This Court has jurisdiction of the Plaintiff's complaint for review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A claimant is disabled only if she shows an 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). She has the burden of proving disability. See Id. § 423(d)(5)(A). She must establish that her physical or mental impairments “are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         A court will affirm the Commissioner's findings of fact and denial of disability benefits if they are supported by substantial evidence. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It must be “more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Even if “reasonable minds could differ” about the disability status of the claimant, the court must affirm the Commissioner's decision as long as it is adequately supported. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         It is the duty of the ALJ to weigh the evidence, resolve material conflicts, make independent findings of fact, and dispose of the case accordingly. Perales, 402 U.S. at 399-400. In this substantial-evidence determination, the court considers the entire administrative record but does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute the court's own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Nevertheless, the court conducts a “critical review of the evidence” before affirming the Commissioner's decision, and the decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an inadequate discussion of the issues. Id.

         The ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, but the ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009). If the Commissioner commits an error of law, remand is warranted without regard to the volume of ...


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