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Stewart v. Berryhill

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

June 22, 2018

PATRICIA A. STEWART, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN CHIEF JUDGE

         Plaintiff Patricia A. Stewart seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her applications for disability and disability insurance benefits. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied her applications and erred by improperly weighing the record opinions of the treating physicians.

         BACKGROUND

         On April 29, 2014, the Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (R. 11.) Her claims were denied initially on June 30, 2014, and upon reconsideration on September 9, 2014. (Id.) On March 16, 2016, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Id.) A vocational expert, Charles H. McBee, also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.) On May 12, 2016, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's applications, finding she was not disabled from her alleged onset date. (R. 11-21.) On April 17, 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 16, 2017, the Plaintiff filed this claim [ECF No. 1] in federal court against the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         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 did not engage in SGA since her alleged disability onset date, April 1, 2014. (R. 13.)

         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 one severe impairment, specifically degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with radiculopathy into the right lower extremity. (Id.) The ALJ also found that the Plaintiff had medically determinable, but non-severe, physical and mental impairments. (Id.) The Plaintiff's physical non-severe impairments were hyperlipidemia, hypertension, and fibromyalgia. (Id.) The Plaintiff's mental non-severe impairments were major depression - single episode, generalized anxiety disorder, and alcohol use disorder. (R. 14).

         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 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 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 with the following exceptions:

[C]an occasionally climb ramps and stairs, she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and she can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The [Plaintiff] should avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights, slippery or uneven surfaces, and dangerous moving machinery.

(R. 16.)

         After analyzing the record, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled from her alleged onset date to her date last insured. The ALJ evaluated the objective medical evidence and the Plaintiff's subjective symptoms and found that the Plaintiff's medically determinable ...


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