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King v. Berryhill

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

June 18, 2018




         Plaintiff James William King, II, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied his Social Security benefits and erred by overemphasizing his daily activities, failing to acknowledge his good work record, improperly evaluating the evidence of his fibromyalgia, failing to properly consider his obesity in conjunction with his other impairments, and by not ordering a consultative exam.


         On October 7, 2013, the Plaintiff filed both a Title II application for disability and disability insurance benefits, and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. (R. 21.) In both applications, the Plaintiff alleged disability beginning on September 17, 2013. (Id.) His claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Id.) On August 26, 2015, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Id.) On March 2, 2017, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 6.)

         On May 1, 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), 1382c(a)(3)(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), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. 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 been unable to engage in SGA since his alleged onset date, September 17, 2013. (R. 23.)

         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) and 416.920(c). In this case, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including degenerative disc disease, other arthropathies, and obesity. (R. 23.) 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. (Id.) The ALJ also found that the Plaintiff had several non-severe impairments, both physical and mental. (R. 23-24.) The ALJ identified mild gastroesophageal reflux disease and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis as non-severe physical impairments, because “they appear well controlled with conservative treatment measures.” (Id.) The ALJ also identified the Plaintiff's “mental impairment of affective disorder” as non-severe, because it “cause[s] no more than a mild limitation.” (R. 24.) The ALJ noted that “[a] tender point examination was not sufficient to establish fibromyalgia as a severe impairment, per SSR 12-2p, ” but did not explicitly identify fibromyalgia as a non-severe impairment. (R. 24.)

         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), 416.920(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), 416.920(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 physically, despite his limitations-to determine whether he can perform “past relevant work, ” (§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(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), 416.920(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 light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), ” with certain exceptions. (R. 25.)

         The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled as of his alleged onset date. (R. 18-32.) 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 the alleged symptoms. (R. 30.) But the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were “not entirely credible.” (Id.)

         The ALJ afforded the Plaintiff's wife's testimony at the hearing little weight. (Id.) Instead, the ALJ relied on the third party function reports prepared by the Plaintiff and his wife in December 2013. (Id.) However, both the Plaintiff and his wife testified that the Plaintiff's condition had deteriorated significantly in the 21 months since completing the third party function reports. (R. 30, 31.) The ALJ discounted this explanation, stating that “[d]ue to the marked discrepancy between the third party function report and the wife's testimony, the undersigned does not find the wife's allegations fully credible.” (R. 30.) The ALJ further stated that, “the record does not reflect [that the Plaintiff has deteriorated] . . . [o]n the contrary, the medical records indicate the claimant has recently begun babysitting his newborn niece two days per week. Diagnostic imaging is normal . . . The bulk of the clinical examinations are relatively normal, ” and concluded by “finding notable the fact the claimant's physical therapist opined the claimant's subjective complaints far outweighed objective findings and discharged the claimant from therapy.” (R. 31.) The ALJ did not cite any other portion of the record as inconsistent with the Plaintiff's testimony.

         The ALJ stated that, due to the combination of the Plaintiff's “mild” degenerative disc disease and his “subjective” complaints of various arthropathies, “compounded by obesity, ” the Plaintiff's RFC was limited to light work with “postural and environmental limitations.” (Id.) The ALJ added that the RFC “is consistent with the claimant's activities of daily living, including caring for multiple small children and pets, doing laundry, preparing meals, vacuuming, and doing dishes. There is no objective evidence to support additional limitations.” (Id.) The ALJ appears to have drawn these daily activities from the third party function report and the medical records. Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that “the collective evidence does not ...

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