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Crail v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 18, 2018

STACIE M. CRAIL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Susan Collins, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Stacie M. Crail 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 AFFIRMED.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Crail applied for DIB in October 2013, alleging disability as of November 5, 2012. (DE 10 Administrative Record (“AR”) 151-52). The Commissioner denied Crail's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 95-102). After a timely request, a hearing was held on September 1, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge Yvonne K. Stam (the “ALJ”), at which Crail, who was represented by counsel; Crail's mother; and a vocational expert testified. (AR 39-71). On November, 5, 2015, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Crail, concluding that she was not disabled because despite the limitations caused by her impairments, she could perform a significant number of jobs in the economy. (AR 20-33). Crail's request for review was denied by the Appeals Council (AR 1-16), at which point the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         Crail filed a complaint with this Court on March 24, 2017, seeking relief from the Commissioner's decision. (DE 1). In the appeal, Crail alleges that the ALJ: (1) failed to properly evaluate the opinion of Karen Lothamer, her treating psychiatric nurse practitioner; and (2) improperly discounted the credibility of Crail's symptom testimony. (DE 18 at 6-10).

         At the time of the ALJ's decision, Crail was 41 years old (AR 33, 151), had a high school education (AR 223), and had work experience as a sales person, an insurance processor, and a paralegal (AR 286). Crail alleges disability due to a depressive disorder and a panic disorder. (DE 18 at 2).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 or combination of impairments 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.[2] 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 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 November 10, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision that ultimately became the Commissioner's final decision. (AR 20-33). At step one, the ALJ concluded that Crail had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after her alleged onset date of November 5, 2012. (AR 22). At step two, the ALJ found that Crail's depressive disorder, not otherwise specified, and her panic disorder were severe impairments. (AR 22-23). At step three, the ALJ concluded that Crail did not have an impairment or combination of impairments severe enough to meet or equal a listing. (AR 23-25).

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that Crail's symptom testimony was “not entirely credible” (AR ...


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