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Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 11, 2018

CYNTHIA K. JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Cynthia K. Johnson appeals to the district court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying her application under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”).[2] For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be REMANDED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On October 15, 2011, Johnson filed for DIB, alleging disability beginning on April 21, 2010. (DE 10 Administrative Record (“AR”) 21, 90-93). On January 10, 2012, Johnson's claim was denied. (AR 90-97). On April 15, 2013, Johnson filed for DIB again, alleging the same onset date of April 21, 2010. (AR 107).

         Johnson's claim was denied initially on July 2, 2013, and upon reconsideration on August 20, 2013. (AR 99-115). Johnson filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (AR 116-17). On November 4, 2014, Administrative Law Judge Yvonne K. Stam (the “ALJ”) held a hearing, at which Johnson and Micha Daoud, a vocational expert (the “VE”), testified. (AR 42-67). Johnson was represented by attorney Gary Davis at the hearing before the ALJ. (AR 42). At the hearing, the ALJ allowed a reopening of Johnson's application for DIB from 2011 pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.987 and 404.988. (AR 21). Johnson also amended her application for DIB to allege a closed period of disability from April 21, 2010, through June 1, 2014. (AR 21, 170). On March 25, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Johnson was not disabled because during the alleged period of disability, she could perform her past relevant work as an account clerk. (AR 18-35). Johnson requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision (AR 8), and the Appeals Council denied her request, making the ALJ's decision the final, appealable decision of the Commissioner (AR 1-7).

         On February 24, 2016, Johnson filed a complaint with this Court seeking relief from the Commissioner's final decision. (DE 1). In her appeal, Johnson alleges that the ALJ erred by: (1) determining that Johnson had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work between April 21, 2010, and June 1, 2014, such that she was not disabled for a period of 12 months; and (2) discrediting Johnson's symptom testimony. (DE 15 at 5).

         II. THE ALJ's FINDINGS

         Under the Act, a claimant is entitled to DIB if she establishes an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to . . . last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1), 423(d)(1)(A). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).

         In determining whether Johnson was disabled as defined by the Act from April 21, 2010, to June 1, 2014, the ALJ conducted the familiar five-step analytical process, which required her to consider the following issues in sequence: (1) whether the claimant was unemployed; (2) whether the claimant had a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment met or equaled one of the impairments listed by the Commissioner, see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1; (4) whether the claimant was unable to perform her past work; and (5) whether the claimant was incapable of performing work in the national economy.[3] See Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. An affirmative answer leads either to the next step or, on steps three and five, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001). A negative answer at any point other than step three stops the inquiry and leads to a finding that the claimant was not disabled. Id. The burden of proof lies with the claimant at every step except the fifth, where it shifts to the Commissioner. Id. at 885-86.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Johnson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of April 21, 2010, through the end of the second quarter of 2014. (AR 24). At step two, the ALJ found that Johnson had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, status post fusion surgery at ¶ 5-6 and L4-5, and obesity. (AR 24-28).

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Johnson did not have an impairment or combination of impairments severe enough to meet or equal a listing during the alleged closed period of disability. (AR 28). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that Johnson's symptom testimony was “not entirely credible” (AR 33), and assigned her the following RFC from April 21, 2010, through June 1, 2014:

[T]he claimant has the [RFC] to perform light work . . . except she could never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; could only occasionally climb ramps and stairs; could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; was limited to no more than occasional overhead reaching; and was limited to work allowing her to sit or stand as needed but able to maintain a posture at least 20 minutes.

(AR 29). The ALJ found at step four that Johnson could perform her past relevant work as an account clerk. (AR 34). Therefore, Johnson's application for DIB was denied. (AR 35).

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Section 405(g) of the Act grants this Court “the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court's task is limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, which means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). The decision ...


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