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Hartley v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

May 10, 2018

ROY S. HARTLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ENTRY ON JUDICIAL REVIEW

          TANYA WALTON PRATT, JUDGE

         Plaintiff Roy Hartley (“Hartley”) requests judicial review of the final decision of the Deputy Commissioner for Operations for the Social Security Administration (the “SSA”), denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). For the following reasons, the Court REMANDS the decision of the Deputy Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On October 9, 2013, Hartley filed an application for SSI, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2011. (Filing No. 13-2 at 20.) His application was initially denied on December 16, 2013, (Filing No. 13-4 at 5), and upon reconsideration on April 8, 2014, (Filing No. 13-4 at 15). Administrative Law Judge Belinda J. Brown (the “ALJ”) held a hearing on October 5, 2015, at which Hartley, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”), Stephanie Archer, appeared and testified. (Filing No. 13-2 at 37-62.) The ALJ issued a decision on January 6, 2016, concluding that Hartley was not entitled to receive SSI. (Filing No. 13-2 at 17.) The Appeals Council denied review on February 7, 2017. (Filing No. 13-2 at 2.) On April 4, 2017, Hartley timely filed this civil action, asking the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c) to review the final decision of the Deputy Commissioner denying Brogan benefits. (Filing No. 1.) For the following reasons, the Court REMANDS the decision of the Deputy Commissioner.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under the Act, a claimant may be entitled to SSI only after he establishes that he is disabled. 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). In order to be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that his physical or mental limitations prevent him from doing not only his previous work but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering his age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Deputy Commissioner employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled despite his medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment that meets the durational requirement, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). At step three, the Deputy Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelve month duration requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         If the claimant's impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the impairments on the Listing of Impairments, then his residual functional capacity will be assessed and used for the fourth and fifth steps. Residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is the “maximum that a claimant can still do despite his mental and physical limitations.” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 675-76 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1); SSR 96-8p). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At the fifth and final step, it must be determined whether the claimant can perform any other work in the relevant economy, given his RFC and considering his age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). The claimant is not disabled if he can perform any other work in the relevant economy.

         The combined effect of all the impairments of the claimant shall be considered throughout the disability determination process. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B). The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps; it then shifts to the Commissioner for the fifth step. Young v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992).

         When an applicant appeals an adverse benefits decision, this Court's role is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). Because the ALJ “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft, 539 F.3d at 678, this Court must afford the ALJ's credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong”. Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

         If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits “is appropriate where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).

         III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Hartley was 45 years of age at the time he applied for SSI. (Filing No. 13-5 at 2.) He has a limited education and previously worked as a forklift driver and an order picker. (Filing No. 13-2 at 28.)[1]

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) and ultimately concluded that Hartley is not disabled. (Filing No. 13-2 at 29.) At step one, the ALJ found that Hartley has not engaged in substantial gainful activity[2] since October 9, 2013, the application date. (Filing No. 13-2 at 22.) At step two, the ALJ found that Hartley has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, degenerative joint disease of the left knee, and obesity. (Filing No. 13-2 at 22.) At step three, the ALJ found that Hartley does not have an impairment or combination of impairments ...


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