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Higgs v. Berryhill

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

May 15, 2018

CLARE HIGGS, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL Deputy Commissioner of Operations of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Matthew P. Brookman, United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter was referred to the Magistrate Judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b) for a Report and Recommendation as to its appropriate disposition. (Docket No. 20). Plaintiff Clare Higgs seeks judicial review of the Social Security Administration's final decision deeming her ineligible for Disability Insurance Benefits. The matter is fully briefed. (Docket No. 14; Docket No. 18; Docket No. 19.) It is recommended that the District Judge REMAND the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration finding that Plaintiff Clare Higgs is not disabled, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further consideration, consistent with this opinion.


         Ms. Higgs filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act on January 27, 2014, alleging that she became disabled on August 5, 2013. Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. At Ms. Higgs's request, a hearing was held on July 12, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Jason R. Yoder, where Ms. Higgs and James Borderay, a vocational expert, appeared and testified. On September 2, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that Ms. Higgs was not disabled. Ms. Higgs requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied review on July 19, 2017, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Social Security Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). On August 11, 2017, Ms. Higgs timely filed this civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the Commissioner's decision.

         Standard for Proving Disability

         To prove disability, a claimant must show she is 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Plaintiff is disabled if her impairments are of such severity that she is not able to perform the work she previously engaged in and, if based on her age, education, and work experience, she cannot engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) has implemented these statutory standards by, in part, prescribing a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         Step one asks if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if she is, then she is not disabled. Step two asks whether the claimant's impairments, singly or in combination, are severe. If they are not, then she is not disabled. A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). The third step is an analysis of whether the claimant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or medically equal the criteria of any of the conditions in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“the Listings”). The Listing of Impairments includes medical conditions defined by criteria that the SSA has pre-determined are disabling, so that if a claimant meets all of the criteria for a listed impairment or presents medical findings equal in severity to the criteria for the most similar listed impairment, then the claimant is presumptively disabled and qualifies for benefits. Sims v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 424, 428 (7th Cir. 2002).

         If the claimant's impairments do not satisfy a listing, then her residual functional capacity (RFC) is determined for purposes of steps four and five. RFC is a claimant's ability to do work on a regular and continuing basis despite her impairment-related physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. At the fourth step, if the claimant has the RFC to perform her past relevant work, then she is not disabled. The fifth step asks whether there is work in the relevant economy that the claimant can perform, based on his vocational profile (age, work experience, and education) and her RFC. If so, then she is not disabled.

         The individual claiming disability bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). If the claimant meets that burden, then the Commissioner has the burden at step five to show that work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, given her age, education, work experience, and functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2); Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004).

         Standard for Review of the ALJ's Decision

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's (or ALJ's) factual findings is deferential. This Court must affirm the ALJ's decision unless it lacks the support of substantial evidence or rests upon a legal error. See, e.g., Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence means evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). The ALJ- not the Court-holds discretion to weigh evidence, resolve material conflicts, make independent factual findings, and decide questions of credibility. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 399-400 (1971). Accordingly, the Court may not re-evaluate facts, reweigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for the ALJ's. See Butera v. Apfel, 173 F.3d 1049, 1055 (7th Cir. 1999).

         The ALJ is required to articulate a minimal, but legitimate, justification for his decision to accept or reject specific evidence of a disability. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004). The ALJ need not address every piece of evidence in his decision, but he cannot ignore a line of evidence that undermines the conclusions he made. The ALJ must trace the path of his reasoning and connect the evidence to his findings and conclusions. Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 592 (7th Cir. 2012); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).


         I. The ALJ's Sequential Findings

         The ALJ found that Higgs had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 5, 2013, the alleged onset date-therefore, the ALJ proceeded to step two of the analysis. (Docket No. 12-2 at ECF p. 17).

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Higgs had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, migraine headaches, hip bursitis, alcohol use disorder in partial remission, left shoulder bursitis, fibromyositis/fibromyalgia, obesity, sleep apnea, and depression. Id. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). The ALJ also determined that Higgs had the following non-severe impairments: hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and irritable bowel syndrome. (Docket No. 12-2 at ECF p. 18).

         At step three, the ALJ found that Higgs's combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments. 20 C.F.R § 404, subpart P, Appendix 1. (Docket No. 12-2 at ECF p. 18). The ALJ considered Listing 1.04, Listing 3.10, Listing 11.03, and considered Higgs's fibromyalgia pursuant to SSR 12-2p and obesity pursuant to SSR 02-1p. (Docket No. 12-2 at ECF p. 19). Further, the ALJ considered Higgs's mental impairments, singly and in combination, pursuant to the criteria of Listing 12.04, 12.06, and 12.09, specifically whether the “paragraph B” criteria were satisfied. (Docket No. 12-2 at ECF p. 19). The ALJ noted that Higgs did not meet the “paragraph B” criteria because she did not have at least two of the following: marked restrictions of daily living; marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. Id. Instead, the ALJ concluded that the evidence showed Higgs's activities of daily living show mild restriction; social functioning show moderate difficulties; concentration, persistence, or pace show moderate difficulties; and two recorded episodes of decompensation. (Docket No. 12-2 at ECF p. 20).

         Prior to Step four, the ALJ determined that Higgs had the RFC to perform light work with the following limitations:

[S]he can lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; she can sit for at least 6 out of 8 hours, and stand and walk for about 6 out of 8 hours; and she can frequently balance and occasionally stoop, kneel crawl, and crouch, but never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She must avoid all exposure to dangerous workplace hazards such as exposed moving machinery and unprotected heights; and she must avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes such as heat and cold, wetness, humidity, and vibration. She can understand and remember simple instructions and carry out simple, routine tasks that require little independent judgment or decision-making at an average production rate pace but should not perform tasks with stringent speed or strict rate based production ...

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