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Weible v. Berryhill

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

May 10, 2018

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



         The Plaintiff, Angie Lea Weible, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for disability insurance benefits. She claims that she is unable to work due to a combination of physical and mental conditions. For the reasons stated in this Opinion and Order, the Court finds that there exists a basis to remand for further review.


         In August 2014, the Plaintiff filed a claim for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning in July 2014. The state agency responsible for making disability determinations on behalf of the Commissioner denied the Plaintiff's claim initially and upon reconsideration. The Plaintiff sought appeal of those determinations and filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). In April 2016, the Plaintiff, who was represented by an attorney, appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ. The ALJ also heard testimony from a vocational expert (VE). In June 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision, in which he concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled because she was capable of performing representative sedentary, unskilled occupations such as circuit board tester, eyeglass assembler, and costume jewelry maker. In arriving at this conclusion, the ALJ employed the familiar five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v); see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) (defining a disability under the Social Security Act as being unable “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”); id. § 423(d)(2)(A) (requiring an applicant to show that his “impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy”).

         At the first step, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 3, 2013. At step two, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff suffered from numerous “severe” impairments, meaning that they significantly limited her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's severe impairments were fibromyalgia, back pain, lumbago, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, knee pain and arthralgias, left wrist pain and athralgias, obesity, hypertension, anemia, leg neuropathy, a history of migraine headaches, vision problems with presbyopia, myopia and bilateral astigmatism, depression, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a reported learning disorder in reading and written expression. The ALJ did not find that these impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed by the Administration as being so severe that it presumptively precludes substantial gainful employment. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526.

         Next, the ALJ was required, at step four, to determine the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC), which is an assessment of the claimant's ability to perform sustained work-related physical and mental activities in light of her impairments. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), except that she could lift, carry, push, and pull ten pounds occasionally and only five pounds frequently. Other restrictions included a sit-stand option, postural limitations, and no forceful gripping and grasping with the dominant left hand. To account for the Plaintiff's attention, concentration, and focus deficits, the ALJ limited her to no more thirty minutes of tasks requiring intense focus. Additionally, she could only occasionally interact with others, including supervisors, coworkers, and the general public. Due to her limitations from her learning disorder, the Plaintiff was limited to work involving only occasional reading. She needed to avoid concentrated exposure to loud noise, and bright and flashing lights because of her persistent migraine headaches. Her vision problems were accommodated in the RFC by a work environment the required only occasional depth perception, only occasional reading or computer work, and no exposure to hazards such as moving machinery or unprotected heights.

         At the final step of the evaluation, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. However, because of the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform. The ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert (VE) to find that the Plaintiff could perform the requirements of representative sedentary, unskilled occupations such as circuit board tester (117, 000 jobs nationwide), eyeglass assembler (103, 000 jobs nationwide), and costume jewelry maker (165, 000 jobs nationwide). At the hearing, the Plaintiff's moved to strike the VE's testimony regarding the number of jobs available nationwide. In his written decision, the ALJ denied the motion, citing the Agency's ability to take administrative notice of job data and to rely on the testimony of a VE when resolving vocational issues.

         The Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. In April 2017, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Liskowitz v. Astrue, 559 F.3d 736, 739 (7th Cir. 2009). The Plaintiff seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         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 evidence in support of the factual findings. Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997).


         The Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to incorporate into her RFC all the limitations from her medically determinable impairments, both severe and nonsevere. Specifically, the ALJ did not include limitations for the Plaintiff's insomnia or her hyperhidrosis. The Plaintiff argues that she had substantial sleep problems that affected her ability to function during the daytime. She maintains that “[l]imiting her to unskilled, sedentary work is insufficient to accommodate someone who only sleeps four hours a night, takes pain medications, and must fight multiple impairments, many of which compound the impact of inadequate sleep.” (Pl.'s Opening Br. 15, ECF No. 20.) She contends that her hyperhidrosis required her to take breaks at unpredictable times to wipe off sweat or to change clothing. The Defendant responds that there was no indication in the record of functional ...

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