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Eller v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 16, 2018

COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Tammy Kay Eller 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”).[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.


         Eller applied for DIB in February 2014, alleging disability as of August 1, 2010, which was later amended to September 21, 2012.[2] (DE 7 Administrative Record (“AR”) 27, 191). Eller was last insured for DIB on December 31, 2013 (AR 82, 252), and therefore, she must establish that she was disabled as of that date. See Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1154 (7th Cir. 1997) (explaining that a claimant must establish that she was disabled as of her date last insured in order to recover DIB benefits).

         The Commissioner denied Eller's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 130-41). After a timely request, a hearing was held on September 30, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge Stephanie Katich (the “ALJ”), at which Eller, who was represented by counsel, and Sharon Ringenberg, a vocational expert (the “VE”), testified. (AR 47-87). On November, 5, 2015, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Eller, concluding that she was not disabled because despite the limitations caused by her impairments, she could perform her past relevant work as a cashier, as well as a significant number of unskilled, light exertional jobs in the economy. (AR 27-41). Eller's request for review was denied by the Appeals Council (AR 1-20, 266-89), at which point the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         Eller filed a complaint with this Court on April 12, 2017, seeking relief from the Commissioner's decision. (DE 1). In the appeal, Eller alleges that the ALJ: (1) improperly found that Eller had no severe mental impairments; and (2) improperly evaluated medical evidence that post-dated her date last insured. (DE 15 at 5-9).

         At the time of the ALJ's decision, Eller was 52 years old (AR 191), had a ninth grade education (AR 218), and had work experience as cashier and a production assembler (AR 77, 219, 265). In her DIB application, Eller alleges disability due to: thoracic and lumbar degenerative disc disease, history of left shoulder tendonitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), asthma, obesity, depression, post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), hypertension, umbilical hernia surgery, left elbow disorder, history of stress incontinence surgery, history of gastroesophageal reflux disease, and cardiomyopathy. (DE 15 at 2).


         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 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). 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).

         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.[3]See Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. 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 ...

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