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Pierce v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

July 12, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration,[1] Defendant.


          Hon. William T. Lawrence, United States District Court Judge

         Plaintiff Shirley Pierce requests judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Deputy Commissioner for Operations of the Social Security Administration (“Deputy Commissioner”), denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). The Court rules as follows.


         Pierce protectively filed her application on April 28, 2014, alleging onset of disability on April 1, 2013. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) initially denied Pierce's application on July 8, 2014. After Pierce timely requested reconsideration, SSA again denied her claim on September 30, 2014. Thereafter, Pierce requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). An ALJ held a hearing on May 5, 2016, at which Pierce, two medical experts, John A. Pella, M.D., and Don A. Olive, Ph.D., as well as a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. The ALJ issued his decision denying Pierce's application on June 30, 2016. After the Appeals Council denied Pierce's request for review on May 5, 2017, Pierce filed this action seeking judicial review on June 15, 2017.


         The relevant evidence of record is amply set forth in the parties' briefs and need not be repeated here. Specific facts relevant to the Court's disposition of this case are discussed below.


         Disability is defined as “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable mental or physical impairment which can be expected to result in death, or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). In order to be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work, but any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner employs a five-step sequential analysis. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity she is not disabled, despite her medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).

         At step two, if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment (i.e., one that significantly limits her ability to perform basic work activities), she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, App. 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelve-month durational requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). At step five, if the claimant can perform any other work in the national economy, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).

         In reviewing the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's findings of fact are conclusive and must be upheld by this court “so long as substantial evidence supports them and no error of law occurred.” Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). “Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” id., and this Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ, Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008). In order to be affirmed, the ALJ must articulate his analysis of the evidence in his decision; while he “is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, ” he must “provide an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and [his] conclusion that a claimant is not disabled.” Kastner v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 642, 646 (7th Cir. 2012). “If a decision lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, a remand is required.” Id. (citation omitted).


         The ALJ found at step one that Pierce had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ determined that Pierce had the severe impairments of cervical spondylosis, lumbar degenerative disc disease, left shoulder pain, history of left knee pain, sacroiliac and hip pain, and obesity. The ALJ found at step three that these impairments did not, individually or in combination, meet or equal the severity of one of the listed impairments. The ALJ's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination was as follows:

After consideration of the entire record, the Administrative Law Judge finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except she can lift and carry up to 10 pounds occasionally; sit for two hours at one time, and for a total of six hours per eight-hour workday with a sit-stand option for five minutes each hour; stand two to three hours in an eight-hour workday; walk two to three hours in an eight-hour workday; occasionally reach overhead; occasionally push and pull; frequently reach forward; frequently use the lower extremities; climb stairs with a handrail; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, and kneel; never couch or crawl; never be exposed to unprotected heights; occasional exposure to moving mechanical parts; but there should be no commercial driving or exposure to extremes of heat or cold.

R. at 22-23. The ALJ concluded at step four that Pierce was incapable of performing her past relevant work as a maintenance mechanic. At step five, the ALJ found, based on VE testimony, that considering Pierce's age, education, work experience, and RFC, that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform, including as a clerk cashier, an ...

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