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Pence v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 16, 2018

JEREMY S. PENCE, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of SSA, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Jeremy S. Pence appeals to the district court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his 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 for further proceedings in accordance with this Opinion and Order.


         Pence applied for DIB and SSI in April 2015, alleging disability as of May 21, 2014. (DE 12 Administrative Record (“AR”) 210-11). The Commissioner denied Pence's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 155-71). A hearing was held on March 7, 2016 (AR 42-94), before Administrative Law Judge Stephanie Katich (the “ALJ”), at which Pence, who appeared pro se, and a vocational expert, Amy Kutschbach (the “VE”), testified. (AR 42-94). On August 5, 2016, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Pence, concluding that he was not disabled because despite the limitations caused by his impairments he could perform a significant number of unskilled, light exertional jobs in the economy. (AR 24-35). The Appeals Council denied Pence's request for review (AR 1-7, 13-15), at which point the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Pence filed a complaint with this Court on March 11, 2017, seeking relief from the Commissioner's final decision. (DE 1). In this appeal, Pence argues that: (1) the ALJ failed to properly consider and weigh the medical opinion evidence; (2) the ALJ's evaluation of his mental impairments and Listing 12.04, the listing for depressive, bipolar, and related disorders, is not supported by substantial evidence; and (3) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the credibility of his symptom testimony and consider the combination of his impairments. (DE 15 at 13-25).

         At the time of the ALJ's decision, Pence was 38 years old (AR 35, 210); had obtained his GED (AR 231); and had past work experience as a hand bander, industrial truck operator, and merchandise displayer (AR 316). In his application, Pence alleged disability due to a car accident, anxiety, a back injury, a hip injury, and life-long depression. (AR 230).


         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 he 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 his 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 inquiry and leads to a finding that the claimant is not disabled. Id. (citation omitted). The burden of proof lies with the claimant at every step except the fifth, where it shifts to the Commissioner. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868 (citation omitted).

         B. The Commissioner's Final Decision

         On August 5, 2016, the ALJ issued the decision that ultimately became the Commissioner's final decision. (AR 24-35). At step one of the five-step analysis, the ALJ found that Pence had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. (AR 26). At step two, the ALJ found that Pence had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, chronic pain syndrome, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, and depression with mood incongruent psychotic features. (AR 27). At step three, the ALJ concluded that Pence did not have an impairment or combination of impairments severe enough to meet or equal a listing. (AR 27-29).

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that Pence's symptom testimony was not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence of record ...

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