United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division
JEREMY S. PENCE, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of SSA, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
COLLINS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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”). (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.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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.
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).
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).
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 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. §§
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. 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
The Commissioner's Final Decision
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
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 ...