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Shoffner v. Berryhill

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

May 14, 2018




         Plaintiff Patricia Lynn Shoffner seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her application for 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 properly evaluate all of the Plaintiff's symptoms and limitations and by imposing an insufficient hypothetical to the vocational expert, resulting in findings that are not supported by substantial evidence.


         On October 29, 2013, 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 February 1, 2011, but she later amended her alleged date of disability onset to June 30, 2012. (R. 12.) Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 79-128) On August 31, 2015, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (R. 12.) Also appearing were Sharon D. Ringenberg., an impartial vocational expert (VE) as well as the Plaintiff's daughter. (Id.) On January 19, 2017, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-3.)

         On March 24 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, June 30, 2012. (R. 14.)

         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 fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis with a history of borderline elevated CCP antibodies as well as synovitis in her MCP and PIP joints, and diabetes mellitus. 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. (R. 15.) The ALJ also found that the Plaintiff had multiple non-severe impairments, including restless leg syndrome, dental problems, cardiovascular problems (including high blood pressure and aortic calcifications), vision problems (including glaucoma and cataracts), bowel problems (including diarrhea and GERD), and right shoulder problems. (Id.) The ALJ also found that the Plaintiff did not have any mental impairments despite her allegation of depression, panic attacks, memory problems, self-isolation, and confusion, although the ALJ acknowledged that the Plaintiff took medications to control these issues. (R. 15-16.)

         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 light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except that she is only occasionally able to climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. (R. 17.)

         After analyzing the record, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled as of her alleged onset date. (R. 12-21.) 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. 18.) But, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's testimony and prior statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were “not entirely credible.” (Id.) The Plaintiff testified that she sleeps a lot, that it takes her two hours to care for her personal needs, after which she is exhausted, that she sometimes cannot bear to wear socks, that she cannot sit through an entire movie, and that she spends three days a week in bed. (Id.) She also stated that in 2012, she was able to lift 10-12 pounds, sit for 60-90 minutes at a time, and walk a couple of blocks at a time, but that at the time of the hearing could lift only a gallon of milk, sit for 45-60 minutes at a time, stand for only 30 minutes at a time, and walk only half a block at a time. (Id.)

         The ALJ found that the Plaintiff is able to engage in “at least a somewhat full range of activities, ” that she is the sole adult in her household and cares for three minor children, and that she is able to do some driving, shop for groceries, watch television, prepare frozen foods, do some housework, and care for her personal needs independently. (Id.) The ALJ also looked to the objective medical evidence and found “the medical evidence of record fails to support a more restrictive assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity or a finding that the claimant's allegations are entirely credible.” (Id.) The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's examination findings “have been largely within normal limits, ” although the ALJ noted various abnormalities. (Id.)

         The Plaintiff has past relevant work as a janitor (unskilled, medium work), bus driver (semi-skilled, medium work), and teacher's aide (skilled, light work). (R. 19.) The ALJ found that the Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work. (Id.) Although the teacher's aide job is one that requires only light exertion, which is within the Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that it was performed in conjunction with the bus driver job and, therefore, that the Plaintiff was unable to perform it. (Id.) Relying on the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that ‚Äúconsidering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the ...

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