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Lash v. Berryhill

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

June 1, 2018




         Plaintiff Brenda Lash seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her application for disability and disability insurance benefits. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied her Social Security Disability benefits and that the ALJ erred by failing to account for all of her impairments, both severe and non-severe in determining her residual functional capacity; failing to account for limitations regarding concentration, persistence, and pace; improperly making psychological judgments contrary to those of medical professionals; and overemphasizing her daily living activities.


         On March 10, 2011, the Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning on April 23, 2008. (R. 18, ECF No. 6.) Her claim was denied initially on June 12, 2014, and upon reconsideration on August 27, 2014. (Id.) On December 23, 2015, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge. (Id.) Dale A. Thomas, an impartial vocational expert, and two other witnesses also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.) On February 9, 2016, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's application. (R. 33.) On June 22, 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 August 21, 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 not engaged in SGA since her alleged onset date, April 23, 2008, through her date last insured, September 30, 2013. (R. 20.)

         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 degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; status post-lumbar fusion with discectomy; major depressive disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; posttraumatic stress disorder; carpal tunnel syndrome; 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. (R. 21.) The ALJ also found that the Plaintiff had multiple non-severe impairments, including rhinitis, headaches, urinary stress incontinence, and arthritis. (Id.)

         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 . . . .” § 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 found that the Plaintiff had a mild restriction in activities of daily living, moderate difficulties with social functioning, and moderate difficulties with regard to concentration, persistence, and pace. (R. 22-23.) However, 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) except that:

[T]he claimant could occasionally operate foot controls bilaterally, she could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, she could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, she could never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, she should have avoided concentrated exposure to wet, slippery surfaces, dangerous moving machinery, and unprotected heights, and she could frequently handle, finger and feel bilaterally. The claimant could understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions without fast-paced production requirements, with few, if any, changes in the workplace. The claimant could make judgments on simple work-related decisions, she could tolerate occasional interactions with supervisors, coworkers, and the general public, and she could tolerate usual work situations.

(R. 24.)

         After analyzing the record, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled as of her alleged onset date. 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. 26.) 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.)

         In her function report completed May 27, 2014, the Plaintiff claimed that she had “difficulty walking more than halfway to the mailbox, lifting, squatting, bending, standing, reaching, sitting, kneeling, talking, climbing stairs, memorizing, completing tasks, concentrating, understanding, following instructions, using her hands, and getting along with others.” (R. 25.) In December 2014, the Plaintiff submitted a statement that “she could walk one hundred feet, stand five to ten minutes, sit ten to fifteen minutes, lift less than three pounds, and could not push, pull, bend, or stoop” and she had “a poor ability to pay attention, as well as bad nerves due to depression.” (Id.) During the hearing before the ALJ, the Plaintiff testified that she has limited ...

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