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Stoy v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 11, 2018

NIKKI L. STOY, Plaintiff,


          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff 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”).[1] (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.


         Stoy 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. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Stoy 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).

         At the 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 45-48).

         Stoy 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).


         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], 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 omitted).

         To 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).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Law

         Under 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. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The 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.[2]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 ...

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