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Watson v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 17, 2018

TOM WATSON, JR., Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.


          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Tom Watson, Jr., appeals to the district court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying his application under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”).[2] 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.


         On March 29, 2011, Watson filed an application for DIB, and on August 4, 2011, he filed an application for Supplemental Security Income, alleging disability as of September 13, 2010, in both applications. (AR 173). The applications were denied initially, and upon reconsideration. (AR 173). Watson filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, who held a hearing on July 3, 2012 (AR 46-108), and ultimately rendered an unfavorable decision on July 18, 2012, finding that Watson was not disabled as defined by the Act. (AR 170-94). Watson requested that the Appeals Council review the Administrative Law Judge's decision, and the Appeals Council denied his request, making the Administrative Law Judge's decision the final appealable decision of the Commissioner. (AR 195-98).

         Watson did not appeal this decision, and instead filed another application for DIB on November 2, 2012, alleging disability as of July 19, 2012. (AR 289-90). This application was also denied initially on February 19, 2013 (AR 230-38), and again upon reconsideration on March 19, 2013 (AR 239). Watson filed a request for a hearing (AR 247-60), and on July 23, 2014, Administrative Law Judge William D. Pierson (the “ALJ”) held a hearing at which Watson; Watson's mother, Sally Watson; and Vocational Expert Marie Kiefer (the “VE”) testified (AR 109-69). Watson was represented by attorney Randal Forbes at the hearing. (AR 109). On November 13, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Watson could perform jobs existing in substantial numbers in the national economy, and therefore, was not disabled under the Act. (AR 20-40). Watson requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision, and the Appeals Council denied his request, making the ALJ's decision the final, appealable decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-19).

         Watson filed a complaint with this Court on March 13, 2016, seeking relief from the Commissioner's final decision. (DE 1). In his appeal, Watson alleges that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to consider evidence that his condition met or medically equaled impairment Listing 1.04, Disorders of the Spine; (2) failing to appropriately consider evidence of his obesity in the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination; (3) failing to consider whether Watson was disabled as defined by the Act for some period of time; and (4) failing to include in the RFC, the need for breaks due to frequent urination. (DE 18 at 7-15).


         Under the Act, a claimant is entitled to DIB 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). 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).

         In determining whether Watson is disabled as defined by the Act, the ALJ conducted the familiar five-step analytical process, which required him to consider 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.[3] See Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001); 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). 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. The burden of proof lies with the claimant at every step except the fifth, where it shifts to the Commissioner. Id. at 885-86.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Watson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of July 19, 2012. (AR 25-26). At step two, the ALJ found that Watson had the following severe impairments: obesity; cervical, thoracic, and lumbar degenerative disc disease, with cervical and thoracic facet arthropathy; radiculopathy; chronic pain syndrome; residuals of collarbone tip removal surgery of the right shoulder; headaches; depression; and anxiety. (AR 26-28).

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Watson did not have an impairment or combination of impairments severe enough to meet or equal a listing. (AR 28-31). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that Watson's symptom testimony was “not entirely credible” and assigned him the following RFC:

[T]he claimant has the [RFC] to perform light work . . . as follows: sit six hours in an eight-hour workday, and stand and/or walk six hours in an eight-hour workday; lift, carry, push, and pull ten pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; occasionally kneel, crouch, crawl, balance, and squat; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional stairs and ramps; occasional bending and stooping, in addition to what is required to sit; frequent, not constant, head and neck motion in all directions; occasional, not frequent, overhead reaching, and overhead work with the dominant upper extremity; no work around bright and flashing lights, or loud noises or noise levels greater than level three; simple, routine, detailed, not complex, repetitive tasks; can sustain the concentration required to perform simple tasks; can remember simple work-like procedures, and best suited to tasks that can be completed in 15 minutes or less; can tolerate predictable changes in the work environment; can meet production requirements in an environment that allows him to sustain a flexible and goal-oriented pace; and, limited from fast paced work, such as assembly line production work, with rigid or strict productivity requirements.

(AR 32). Based on this RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Watson could not perform his past relevant work as an injection press operator, manufactured building repairer, line welder, or drywaller. (AR 38). The ALJ considered the testimony of the VE and other evidence in the record and determined at step five that Watson could perform other jobs in the national economy that exist in significant numbers, and therefore, his application for DIB was denied. (AR 38-40).

         III. ...

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