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Sands v. Berryhill

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

May 16, 2018

LONNIE SANDS, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Lonnie Sands seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the Commissioner) denying his application for supplemental security income. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied him supplemental security income and erred by failing to (1) adequately identify his medically determinable impairments and, therefore, failing to incorporate them into the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, and (2) drawing improper inferences from the Plaintiff's failure to pursue regular medical treatment without considering the reasons for such failure.


         On December 23, 2013, the Plaintiff filed his Title XVI application for a period of supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning on December 5, 2007. (R. 17.) His claims were denied initially on March 24, 2013, and upon reconsideration on July 9, 2014. (Id.) On November 13, 2015, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Id.) Richard P. Oestreich, a vocational expert (VE), also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.) On December 17, 2015, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's application, finding he was not disabled as of his alleged onset date. (R. 17-31.) On March 10, 2017, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. 1-3.)

         On May 9, 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). To be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that his physical or mental limitations prevent him from doing not only his previous work, but also any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering his age, education, and work experience. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. 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 not engaged in SGA since his alleged onset date, December 5, 2007. (R. 19.)

         In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting his ability to do basic work activities under § 416.920(c). In this case, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including bipolar disorder; anxiety disorder; major depressive disorder with psychotic features; panic disorder with agoraphobia; hypertension; asthma; chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD); and obesity. (Id.) 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. (Id.) The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's other alleged or diagnosed impairments, including cardiac dysrhythmias and other premature beats; diverticulosis, colon polyps, and internal hemorrhoids; hyperlipidemia; benign prostatic hyperplasia; atherosclerosis; sinus tachycardia; cannabis abuse; and polysubstance abuse were non-severe because they did not cause more than minimal interference with the Plaintiff's basic work activities. (Id.) The ALJ further found that the Plaintiff's alleged back and knee pain, abdominal pain, learning disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, social disorder, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder were not medically determinable. (R. 20.)

         Step three requires the ALJ to “consider the medical severity of [the] impairment” to determine whether the impairment “meets or equals one of [the] listings in appendix 1 . . . .” § 416.920(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.” § 416.920(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 he can still do physically, despite his limitations-to determine whether he can perform “past relevant work, ” (§ 416.920(a)(4)(iv)), or whether the claimant can “make an adjustment to other work” given the claimant's “age, education, and work experience.” § 416.920(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 he had the RFC to perform medium work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c), except:

He can have frequent exposure to dust, odors, fumes and pulmonary irritants. He can perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks but not at a production rate pace (e.g. assembly line work). He can make simple work-related decisions. He can have frequent contact with supervisors, and occasional contact with coworkers and the public. He would be off-task 10 percent of the time in an 8-hour workday in addition to normal breaks. He would be absent from work one day per month.

(R. 23.)

         After analyzing the record, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled as of his alleged onset date. The ALJ evaluated the objective medical evidence and the Plaintiff's subjective symptoms and found that the Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of his alleged symptoms. (R. 24.) But, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's testimony and prior statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms were “not entirely credible.” (Id.) The Plaintiff alleged difficulty concentrating and undertaking activities, as well as memory difficulties; anxiety attacks, accompanied by tremors; racing thoughts; hallucinations and delusions; suicidal tendencies; a feeling of lack of control over his thoughts, emotions, and actions; mood swings; lack of energy; shortness of breath; headaches; stomach problems and back and knee pain; and troubled sleep. (Id.) As a result, the Plaintiff claimed that he is unable to lift more than 30 pounds; unable to stand for more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time; unable to climb more than one flight of stairs at a time; is limited in squatting, bending, and kneeling; has difficulty talking and seeing; has difficulty being around groups of people and has little in the way ...

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