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Clore v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 30, 2018

JOHN T. CLORE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF Social Security, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, [1] Acting Commissioner of SSA, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Susan Collins, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff John T. Clore 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

         Clore applied for DIB in April 2014, alleging disability as of November 5, 2013. (DE 9 Administrative Record (“AR”) 205-06). The Commissioner denied Clore's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 136-39, 146-52). After a timely request, a hearing was held on March 9, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge Stephanie Katich (the “ALJ”), at which Clore, who was represented by counsel; Clore's mother; and a vocational expert, Sharon Ringenberg (the “VE”), testified. (AR 56-109). On June 6, 2016, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Clore, 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 19-45). Clore requested review of the decision by the Appeals Council and submitted additional evidence with that request, but the Appeals Council denied review (AR 1-6), at which point the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         Clore filed a complaint with this Court on January 23, 2017, seeking relief from the Commissioner's decision. (DE 1). Clore advances four arguments in this appeal: (1) that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the medical source opinions and adopted a flawed residual functional capacity (“RFC”) finding; (2) the RFC assigned by the ALJ does not account for all of Clore's mental limitations, including his moderate deficits in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; (3) that the ALJ's step-five finding is not supported by substantial evidence because the VE failed to provide an adequate foundation for the number of jobs cited; and (4) that the Appeals Council erred in its consideration of the additional evidence that Clore submitted. (DE 17 at 10-24).

         At the time of the ALJ's decision, Clore was 30 years old (AR 45, 205) and had obtained a high school degree and an associate's degree, had gone to diesel mechanic school, and had received on-the-job training from Navistar Truck and Engine (AR 73, 244). Clore had worked as a part picker, field service engineer, gas station attendant, and mechanic. (AR 245, 339). In his DIB application, Clore alleged disability due to post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, hypertension, depression, lower back problems, left shoulder problems, gastrointestinal pain and nausea, and diarrhea. (AR 243). Clore was six, feet four inches tall and weighed 403 pounds at the time he applied for disability. (AR 243).

         Clore has been hospitalized at least four times (May 2011, December 2012, February 2013, and November 2013) due to his history of deep vein thrombosis with recurrent pulmonary emboli. (AR 381-82, 501-03, 708-19, 1053). In addition to his primary care physician, Clore has consulted or been treated by multiple specialist physicians for his various impairments, including a hematologist, a pain management specialist, an orthopaedist, a pulmonologist, a gastroenterologist, and a psychiatrist.

         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 ...


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