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Monhollen v. Berryhill

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

June 11, 2018




         Plaintiff Timberly Clark Monhollen seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying his application for disability insurance benefits. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied him disability benefits by failing to propose an adequate hypothetical to the vocational expert to account for the Plaintiff's moderate limitations with regard to concentration, persistence, and pace.


         On February 12, 2013, the Plaintiff filed his Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning on November 12, 2014. (R. 16.) His claims were denied initially on February 20, 2015, and upon reconsideration on April 1, 2015. (Id.) On February 2, 2016, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Id.) An impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Sharon D. Ringenberg, also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.) On December 22, 2016, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's application, finding he was not disabled prior to his date last insured, April 25, 2016. (R. 16-30.) On April 11, 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 June 15, 2016, the Plaintiff filed this claim [ECF No. 1] 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 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. § 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 from his alleged onset date, November 12, 2014. (R. 18.)

         In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting his ability to do basic work activities under § 404.1520(c). In this case, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including sciatica, osteoarthritis, and degenerative disc disease of the spine with spinal stenosis as well as depression, a mild neurocognitive disorder, social anxiety disorder, and hypertension. (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 and had lasted for at least twelve months as required under the statute. (Id.) The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's other medically determinable impairments, including gastroesophageal reflux disease, benign prostate hypertrophy, and hypercholesterolemia were non-severe impairments because they did not cause more than minimal functional limitations over the course of a twelve-month period. (R. 19.)

         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 . . . .” 20 C.F.R. § 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 he can still do, despite his limitations-to determine whether he 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 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 a limited range of light work, as defined in § 404.1567(b) except that:

“[H]e is limited to lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally. The claimant can sit at least six hours in an eight-hour workday and stand and/or walk six hours in an eight hour work day. The claimant should not climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant can occasionally balance. The claimant can occasionally bend and stoop in addition to what is required to sit. The claimant can occasionally use ramps and stairs. Aside from use of ramps and stairs on an occasional basis, the claimant should not work upon uneven surfaces. The claimant should avoid working upon wet and slippery surfaces. The claimant should avoid work within close proximity to open and exposed heights and open and dangerous machinery such as open flames and fast moving exposed blades. The claimant is limited to occasional overhead work and occasional overhead reaching. The claimant is limited to work that involves only simple, routine and repetitive tasks that can be learned through short demonstration and up to thirty days. The claimant can maintain the concentration required to perform simple tasks. The claimant can remember simple work like procedures. The claimant can make simple work related decisions. The claimant can read simple instructions, lists and address labels but should not perform work requiring extensive reading and writing such as work manuals.

(R. 21.)

         After analyzing the record, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled from his alleged onset date to his date last insured. The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms. 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 consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record . . . .” (R. 22.) The Plaintiff testified regarding the effects of his alleged physical and mental impairments. With respect to his mental impairments, the Plaintiff alleged that he has difficulty with memory, understanding, and reading. (R. 20.) He also indicated that he has difficulty paying attention, finishing what he starts, and following instructions. (Id.) However, he is able to handle his own finances. (Id.) Based on the Plaintiff's ...

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