United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division
NIKKI L. STOY, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
Collins United States Magistrate Judge
Nikki L. Stoy appeals to the district court from a final
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying her application under
the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and
Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”). (DE 1). For the following reasons, the
Commissioner's decision will be REVERSED, and the case
will be REMANDED to the Commissioner in accordance with this
Opinion and Order.
PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL HISTORY
applied for DIB and SSI in March 2014, alleging disability as
of February 12, 2014. (DE 11 Administrative Record
(“AR”) 238-45). The Commissioner denied
Stoy's application initially and upon reconsideration.
(AR 129-30, 151-52). After a timely request, a hearing was
held on November 16, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge
Stephanie Katich (“the ALJ”), at which Stoy, who
was represented by an attorney, and a vocational expert,
Sharon Ringenberg (the “VE”), testified. (AR
39-89). On January 25, 2016, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable
decision to Stoy, concluding that she was not disabled
because despite the limitations caused by her impairments,
she could perform a significant number of sedentary jobs in
the economy, including charge account clerk, telephone order
clerk, and optical final assembler. (AR 21-32). The Appeals
Council denied Stoy's request for review (AR 1-6), at
which point the ALJ's decision became the final decision
of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§
filed a complaint with this Court on March 21, 2017, seeking
relief from the Commissioner's final decision. (DE 1).
Stoy advances two arguments in this appeal: (1) that the
ALJ's credibility determination is not supported by
substantial evidence; and (2) that the ALJ improperly found
at step two that Stoy's carpal tunnel syndrome was
non-severe and further erred by failing to account for her
carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms in the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”). (DE 15 at 6-14).
time of the ALJ's decision, Stoy was 41 years old (AR 32,
238); had a high school degree and had attended one year of
college (AR 263); and possessed past work experience as a
home health aide, a bartender/waitress, and a production
assembler (AR 73-74, 263, 321). At the time of the hearing,
Stoy was working part-time as a bartender and waitress at an
American Legion, working three and a half hours a night, two
to three nights a week, and earning about $100 a week. (AR
has a 15-year history of back pain and has undergone two
corrective back surgeries (a laminectomy and a fusion) on her
lumbar spine, as well as a third surgery to implant a spinal
cord stimulator for pain control. (See, e.g., AR
338, 363, 514, 580591-93). She was more recently diagnosed
with carpal tunnel syndrome in her right wrist. (AR 393,
645). She also suffers from various mental impairments,
including a major depressive disorder, a generalized anxiety
disorder, an intermittent explosive disorder, and an impulse
control disorder. (AR 375, 381, 412).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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], 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 will be reversed only
if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ
applied an erroneous legal standard. Clifford v.
Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000) (citation
determine if substantial evidence exists, the Court reviews
the entire administrative record but does not reweigh the
evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility,
or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's.
Id. Rather, if the findings of the Commissioner are
supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive.
Jens v. Barnhart, 347 F.3d 209, 212 (7th Cir. 2003)
(citation omitted). “In other words, so long as, in
light of all the evidence, reasonable minds could differ
concerning whether [the claimant] is disabled, we must affirm
the ALJ's decision denying benefits.” Books v.
Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 978 (7th Cir. 1996).
the Act, a claimant is entitled to DIB or SSI 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), 1382c(a)(3)(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. §§
Commissioner evaluates disability claims pursuant to a
five-step evaluation process, requiring consideration of 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.See Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d
1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted); 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520, 416.920. 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) (citation
omitted). A negative answer at any point other than step
three stops the ...