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Miller v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 22, 2018

BRENT MILLER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Brent Miller appeals to the district court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”).[2] (DE 1). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be REVERSED, and the case will be REMANDED to the Commissioner for further proceedings in accordance with this Opinion and Order.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Miller applied for DIB in February 2013, alleging disability as of December 28, 2012. (DE 9 Administrative Record (“AR”) 152-153). The Commissioner denied Miller's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 96-99, 101-07). After a timely request, a hearing was held on May 22, 2014, before Administrative Law Judge William D. Pierson (the “ALJ”), at which Miller, who was represented by George Merkle, a non-attorney representative; and a vocational expert, Marie Kieffer (the “VE”), testified. (AR 36-74). On August 4, 2014, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Miller, concluding that he was not disabled because he could perform a significant number of unskilled, sedentary jobs in the economy despite the limitations caused by his impairments. (AR 22-30). Miller requested review of the decision by the Appeals Council and submitted additional evidence with his request, but the Appeals Council denied review (AR 1-6, 15), at which point the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         Miller filed a complaint with this Court on April 11, 2016, seeking relief from the Commissioner's decision. (DE 1). Miller advances five arguments in this appeal: (1) that the ALJ erred at step three by failing to obtain an updated medical opinion as to whether he met or equaled a listing; (2) that the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assigned by the ALJ is not supported by substantial evidence; (3) that the ALJ improperly discounted the credibility of Miller's symptom testimony; (4) that the VE's testimony was unreliable; and (5) that the Appeals Council erred by failing to remand the case to the ALJ due to new and material evidence. (DE 15 at 13-24).

         At the time of the ALJ's decision, Miller was 46 years old (AR 30, 152) and had a high school degree, had attended four or more years of college, and had obtained an associate's degree in applied sciences, a certification in welding and sheet metal, and a journeyman's license (AR 184). Miller had worked as a metal fabricator in the tool and die business from October 1985 to December 2012. (AR 175, 184). In his DIB application, Miller alleged disability due to osteoarthritis; lumbosacral degenerative disc disease and fusion, bilateral hip replacements, a Factor V Leiden clotting disorder, hypertension, and hypercholesterolemia. (AR 183).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Section 405(g) of the Act grants this Court “the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner], with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court's task is limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, which means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). The decision will be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ applied an erroneous legal standard. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted).

         To determine if substantial evidence exists, the Court reviews the entire administrative record but does not reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Id. Rather, if the findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. Jens v. Barnhart, 347 F.3d 209, 212 (7th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). “In other words, so long as, in light of all the evidence, reasonable minds could differ concerning whether [the claimant] is disabled, we must affirm the ALJ's decision denying benefits.” Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 978 (7th Cir. 1996).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Law

         Under the Act, a claimant is entitled to DIB if he establishes an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to . . . last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1), 423(d)(1)(A). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).

         The Commissioner evaluates disability claims pursuant to a five-step evaluation process, requiring consideration of the following issues, in sequence: (1) whether the claimant is currently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the Commissioner, see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1; (4) whether the claimant is unable to perform his past work; and (5) whether the claimant is incapable of performing work in the national economy.[3] See Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. An affirmative answer leads either to the next step or, on steps three and five, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). A negative answer at any point other than step three stops the inquiry and leads to a finding that the claimant is not disabled. Id. (citation omitted). The burden of proof lies with the claimant at every step except the fifth, where it shifts to the Commissioner. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868 (citation omitted).

         B. The ...


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