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Copeland v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

June 1, 2018

CHARLES D. COPELAND, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PAUL R. CHERRY, MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on a Complaint [DE 1], filed by Plaintiff Charles D. Copeland, Jr. on March 29, 2017, and on an Opening Brief [DE 16], filed by Plaintiff on September 11, 2017. Plaintiff requests that the Court reverse the June 11, 2015 decision of the Administrative Law Judge denying him disability insurance benefits and either award benefits or remand for a new hearing. For the following reasons, the Court grants Plaintiff's request for remand for a new hearing.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On June 17, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability. Plaintiff has amended his alleged onset date of disability to June 10, 2013. The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. On May 29, 2015, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Laurie Wardell. Present at the hearing were Plaintiff, his attorney, and an impartial vocational expert. The ALJ issued a written decision on June 11, 2015, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled based on the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 10, 2013, the amended alleged onset date.
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine; status post lumbar fusion; history of left shoulder surgery; calcaneal spurs to the feet; obesity; and anxiety.
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except he can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds or more than occasionally climb ramps and stairs, kneel, stoop, crouch or crawl. He can balance on even and dry surfaces but not on wet or uneven surfaces. He can have no exposure to vibration or hazards such as unprotected heights or dangerous, moving mechanical parts. The claimant is limited to simple, routine tasks.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work.
7. The claimant was born [in 1970] and was 43 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44, on the amended alleged disability onset date. The claimant subsequently changed age category to a younger individual age 45-49.
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English.
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills.
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 10, 2013, the amended alleged onset date of disability[, ] through the date of this decision.

(AR 28-39).

         Plaintiff then sought review before the Agency's Appeals Council, which denied his request on January 23, 2017, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. In denying Plaintiff's request, the Appeals Council determined that new evidence submitted to it was not relevant to the time period at issue in the ALJ's decision. On March 29, 2017, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this case.

         The parties filed forms of consent to have this case assigned to a United States Magistrate Judge to conduct all further proceedings and to order the entry of a final judgment in this case. Therefore, this Court has jurisdiction to decide this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Social Security Act authorizes judicial review of the final decision of the agency and indicates that the Commissioner's factual findings must be accepted as conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Thus, a court reviewing the findings of an ALJ will reverse only if the findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ has applied an erroneous legal standard. See Briscoe v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence consists of “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) (quoting Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003)).

         A court reviews the entire administrative record but does not reconsider facts, re-weigh the evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See Boiles v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 421, 425 (7th Cir. 2005); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000); Butera v. Apfel, 173 F.3d 1049, 1055 (7th Cir. 1999). Thus, the question upon judicial review of an ALJ's finding that a claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is not whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled, but whether the ALJ “uses the correct legal standards and the decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Roddy v. Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2010); Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 734-35 (7th Cir. 2006); Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004)). “[I]f the Commissioner commits an error of law, ” the Court may reverse the decision “without regard to the volume of evidence in support of the factual findings.” White v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 369, 373 (7th Cir. 1999) (citing Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997)).

         At a minimum, an ALJ must articulate her analysis of the evidence in order to allow the reviewing court to trace the path of her reasoning and to be assured that the ALJ considered the important evidence. See Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002); Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 307 (7th Cir. 1995); Green v. Shalala, 51 F.3d 96, 101 (7th Cir. 1995). An ALJ must “‘build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [the] conclusion' so that [a reviewing court] may assess the validity of the agency's final decision and afford [a claimant] meaningful review.” Giles v. Astrue, 483 F.3d 483, 487 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Scott, 297 F.3d at 595)); see also O'Connor-Spinner, 627 F.3d at 618 (“An ALJ need not specifically address every piece of evidence, but must provide a ‘logical bridge' between the evidence and [the] conclusions.”); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 889 (7th Cir. 2001) (“[T]he ALJ's analysis must provide some glimpse into the reasoning behind [the] decision to deny benefits.”).

         DISABILITY STANDARD

         To be eligible for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he suffers from a “disability” as defined by the Social Security Act and regulations. The Act defines “disability” as an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To be found disabled, the claimant's impairment must not only prevent him from doing his previous work, but considering his age, education, and work experience, it must also prevent him from engaging in any other type of substantial gainful activity that exists in significant numbers in the economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)-(f).

         When a claimant alleges a disability, Social Security regulations provide a five-step inquiry to evaluate whether the claimant is entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The steps are: (1) Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity? If yes, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no, the inquiry proceeds to step two; (2) Does the claimant have an impairment or combination of impairments that are severe? If no, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if yes, the inquiry proceeds to step three; (3) Do(es) the impairment(s) meet or equal a listed impairment in the appendix to the regulations? If yes, the claimant is automatically considered disabled; if no, then the inquiry proceeds to step four; (4) Can the claimant do the claimant's past relevant work? If yes, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no, then the inquiry proceeds to step five; (5) Can the claimant perform other work given the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), age, education, and experience? If yes, then the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(I)-(v); see also Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699-700 (7th Cir. 2004).

         At steps four and five, the ALJ must consider an assessment of the claimant's RFC. The RFC “is an administrative assessment of what work-related activities an individual can perform despite [his] limitations.” Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1178 (7th Cir. 2001). The RFC should be based on evidence in the record. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 676 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3)). The claimant bears the burden of proving steps one through four, whereas the burden at step five is on the ALJ. Zurawski, 245 F.3d at 885-86; see also Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).

         ANALYSIS

         In this appeal, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to Plaintiff's treating physicians, inadequately considered Plaintiff's obesity, and erroneously determined Plaintiff's subjective symptoms and further argues that the Appeals Council erred in considering new evidence submitted to it not related to the time period covered by the ALJ's decision.

         A. Treating Physician Opinions

         Under what is known as the “treating physician rule, ” the opinion of a treating physician on the nature and severity of an impairment is given controlling weight if it “is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record.” Jelinek v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 811 (7th Cir. 2011); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). When an ALJ does not give controlling weight to the opinion of a treating physician, she must weigh the opinion in accordance with the factors in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2) (“When we do not give the treating source's opinion controlling weight, we apply the factors listed in paragraphs (c)(2)(I) and (c)(2)(ii) of this section, as well as the factors ...


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