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Mounts v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

July 2, 2018

AMANDA MOUNTS, on behalf of JOSEPH D. MOUNTS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO JUDGE

         Amanda Mounts brings this case on behalf of her deceased husband, Joseph D. Mounts, appealing the denial of his claim for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits. For the following reasons, the Court remands this matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         BACKGROUND

         Mr. Mounts filed his initial application for benefits on April 4, 2013, alleging disability beginning March 19, 2013. His application was denied initially, on reconsideration, and following an administrative hearing in August 2015 at which he was represented by counsel. At that hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Mr. Mounts and vocational expert Richard Fisher. The ALJ found that Mr. Mounts had some severe impairments but could still perform certain jobs available in the national and regional economy, and he was therefore not disabled within the meaning of the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g). The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ decision, making the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. Mr. Mounts died in August 2016, and his wife now brings this claim on his behalf.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Because the Appeals Council denied review, the Court evaluates the ALJ's decision as the final word of the Commissioner of Social Security. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). The Court will affirm the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits if it is supported by substantial evidence. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It must be “more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Thus, even if “reasonable minds could differ” about the disability status of the claimant, the Court will affirm the Commissioner's decision as long as it is adequately supported. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         In this substantial-evidence determination, the Court does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility or substitute the Court's own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). The Court does, however, critically review the record to ensure that the ALJ's decision is supported by the evidence and contains an adequate discussion of the issues. Id. The ALJ must evaluate both the evidence favoring the claimant as well as the evidence favoring the claim's rejection; she may not ignore an entire line of evidence that is contrary to her findings. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001). The ALJ must also “articulate at some minimal level his analysis of the evidence” to permit informed review. Id. Ultimately, while the ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, she must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and her conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).

         DISCUSSION

         Disability benefits are available only to individuals who are disabled under the terms of the Social Security Act. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998). A claimant is disabled if he or she is unable “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). The Social Security regulations contain a five-step test to ascertain whether the claimant has established a disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). These steps require the Court to sequentially determine:

1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity;
2. Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment;
3. Whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one listed in the regulations;
4. Whether the claimant can still perform relevant past work; and
5. Whether the claimant can perform other work in the ...

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