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Baxley v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

June 15, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Deanna Kay Baxley (“Baxley”) requests judicial review of the final decision of the Deputy Commissioner for Operations of the Social Security Administration (the “SSA”), denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under the Social Security Act. For the following reasons, the Court AFFIRMS the decision of the Deputy Commissioner.


         On April 7, 2014, Baxley filed an application for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of March 25, 2014. (Filing No. 14-2 at 47.) Her application was initially denied on June 9, 2014, (Filing No. 14-4 at 3), and upon reconsideration on September 18, 2014 (Filing No. 14-4 at 9). Administrative Law Judge Kimberly Sorg-Graves (the “ALJ”) held a hearing on January 26, 2016, at which Baxley, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”), Gail Corn, appeared and testified. (Filing No. 14-2 at 5-29.) The ALJ issued a decision on March 8, 2016, concluding that Baxley was not entitled to receive DIB. (Filing No. 14-2 at 44.) The Appeals Council denied review on March 8, 2017. (Filing No. 14-2 at 30.) On May 1, 2017, Baxley timely filed this civil action, asking the court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final decision of the Deputy Commissioner denying Baxley benefits. (Filing No. 1.)


         Under the Social Security Act, a claimant may be entitled to benefits only after she establishes that she is disabled. 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). In order to be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Deputy Commissioner employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled despite her medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). At step two, if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment that meets the durational requirement, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At step three, the Deputy Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelve month duration requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

         If the claimant's impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the impairments on the Listing of Impairments, then her residual functional capacity will be assessed and used for the fourth and fifth steps. Residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is the “maximum that a claimant can still do despite [her] mental and physical limitations.” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 675-76 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); SSR 96-8p). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). At the fifth and final step, it must be determined whether the claimant can perform any other work, given her RFC and considering her age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). The claimant is not disabled if she can perform any other work in the relevant economy.

         The combined effect of all the impairments of the claimant shall be considered throughout the disability determination process. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B). The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps; it then shifts to the Deputy Commissioner for the fifth step. Young v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992).

         When an applicant appeals an adverse benefits decision, this Court's role is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). Because the ALJ “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft, 539 F.3d at 678, this Court must afford the ALJ's credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong.” Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

         If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits “is appropriate where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).


         Baxley was 54 years of age at the time she applied for DIB citing several impairments, most of which centered around disorders causing pain in the back, shoulders, and knees, as well as difficulty breathing. (Filing No. 14-5 at 2.) She has a limited education, (Filing No. 14-2 at 8), and previously worked as an inspector, a mail clerk, a machine stapler, and an inspector and packager, (Filing No. 14-2 at 25).[1]

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) and ultimately concluded that Baxley is not disabled. (Filing No. 14-2 at 54.) The ALJ determined that Baxley meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018. (Filing No. 14-2 at 49.) At step one, the ALJ found that Baxley has not engaged in substantial gainful activity[2] since March 25, 2014, the alleged onset date. (FilingNo. 14-2 at 49.) At step two, the ALJ found that Baxley has the following severe impairments: chronic pulmonary insufficiency, degenerative disc disease, and right shoulder impairment. (Filing No. 14-2 at 49.) At step three, the ALJ found that Baxley does not have an impairment or combination ...

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