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Michaeli v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 11, 2018

COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.


          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Claire Michaeli 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 AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 17, 2013, Michaeli filed for DIB, alleging disability beginning on December 29, 2011. (DE 10 Administrative Record (“AR”) 22, 164-66). Michaeli's claim was denied initially on February 25, 2013, and upon reconsideration on June 5, 2013. (AR 92-103). Michaeli filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (AR 104-05). On August 5, 2014, Administrative Law Judge Maryann Bright (the “ALJ”) held a hearing, at which Michaeli and Sharon Ringenberg, a vocational expert (the “VE”), testified. (AR 36-73).

         Michaeli was represented by attorney Randal Forbes at the hearing before the ALJ. (AR 36).

         On October 31, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Michaeli was not disabled because during the alleged period of disability she could perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. (AR 19-31). Michaeli requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision (AR 14-16), and the Appeals Council denied her request, making the ALJ's decision the final, appealable decision of the Commissioner (AR 1-3).

         On March 11, 2016, Michaeli filed a complaint with this Court seeking relief from the Commissioner's final decision. (DE 1). In her appeal, Michaeli alleges that the ALJ erred in assessing her credibility, resulting in a flawed residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination. In particular, Michaeli claims that the ALJ erred by: (1) overemphasizing her ability to perform daily activities; (2) improperly considering her inability to afford treatment; and (3) failing to favorably consider her good work history prior to her alleged onset date. (DE 18 at 7).


         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 Michaeli is disabled as defined by the Act, the ALJ conducted the familiar five-step analytical process, which required her to consider the following issues in sequence: (1) whether the claimant is currently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the Commissioner, see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1; (4) whether the claimant is unable to perform her past work; and (5) whether the claimant is 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 is 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 Michaeli had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of December 29, 2011. (AR 24). At step two, the ALJ found that Michaeli had the following severe impairments: prosthetic right eye, minor cataract in the left eye, mild degenerative disc disease, and hearing loss. (AR 24-26).

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Michaeli did not have an impairment or combination of impairments severe enough to meet or equal a listing. (AR 26-67). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that Michaeli's symptom testimony was “not entirely credible” and assigned her the following RFC:

[T]he claimant has the [RFC] to perform light work . . . except that she is only occasionally able to climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She is not able to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds at all. She can engage in tasks requiring only occasional peripheral acuity. She should avoid all exposure to excessive noise and hazards, such as slippery/uneven surfaces, unprotected heights, and dangerous/unguarded machinery.

(AR 27). Based on this RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Michaeli could not perform her past relevant work as a home health aide. (AR 29). The ALJ considered the testimony of the VE and other evidence in the record and determined at step five that Michaeli could perform other jobs in the national economy that exist in ...

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