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Shaw-Hughes v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 18, 2018

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


          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Robin Shaw-Hughes 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 Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).[1] (DE 1). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be AFFIRMED.


         Shaw-Hughes applied for SSI in December 2013, alleging disability as of February 1, 1997, which she later amended to October 30, 2013. (DE 9 Administrative Record (“AR”) 12, 240-51). The Commissioner denied Shaw-Hughes's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 119, 132). A hearing was held on September 9, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge Daniel Balutis (the “ALJ”), at which Shaw-Hughes's attorney and a vocational expert appeared, but Shaw-Hughes failed to appear. (AR 89-107). A second hearing was held on January 17, 2016, before the ALJ at which Shaw-Hughes, who was represented by an attorney, and a vocational expert testified. (AR 30-88). On February 5, 2016, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Shaw-Hughes, concluding that she was not disabled because she could perform a significant number of unskilled, light work jobs in the economy despite the limitations caused by her impairments. (AR 12-23). The Appeals Council denied Shaw-Hughes's request for review (AR 1-5), at which point the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.

         Shaw-Hughes filed a complaint with this Court on April 17, 2017, seeking relief from the Commissioner's decision. (DE 1). Shaw-Hughes asserts that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to request a consultative examination to fully and fairly develop the record regarding her physical impairments; and (2) failing to fully credit the opinion of Dr. Jay Patel, her treating psychiatrist. (DE 13 at 12-17).

         At the time of the ALJ's decision, Shaw-Hughes was 48 years old (AR 23, 240); had completed the 11th grade (AR 265); and had past work experience as a clerical intern, a dishwasher, a production worker, and a telemarketer (AR 265, 348, 352). At the time of the hearing, Shaw Hughes was five feet, three inches tall, and weighed 164 pounds. (AR 37). In her SSI application, Shaw-Hughes alleged disability due to a schizoaffective disorder, depression, and nerve damage in her neck. (AR 264).


         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 of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). 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).

         To determine if substantial evidence exists, the Court reviews the entire administrative record but does not re-weigh 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. Id. Nonetheless, “substantial evidence” review should not be a simple rubber-stamp of the Commissioner's decision. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Law

         Under the Act, a plaintiff is entitled to SSI if she “is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         In determining whether Shaw-Hughes is disabled as defined by the Act, the ALJ conducted the familiar five-step analytical process, which required him to assess 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); 20 C.F.R. § 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). 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.

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         On February 5, 2016, the ALJ issued the decision that ultimately became the Commissioner's final decision. (AR 12-23). He found at step one of the five-step analysis that while Shaw-Hughes had worked briefly as a housekeeper in August 2015 and as a bell ringer in November 2015, she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after her application date of October 30, 2013. (AR 14). At step two, the ALJ determined that Shaw-Hughes had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, cervical and lumbar spines; obesity; schizoaffective disorder; alcohol dependence; and cocaine dependence. (AR 14). At step three, the ALJ found that Shaw-Hughes's impairment or combination of impairments were not severe enough to meet a listing. (AR 15).

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ concluded that Shaw-Hughes's symptom testimony was not entirely credible ...

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