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Anderson v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 18, 2018

YVETTE J. ANDERSON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of SSA, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Yvette J. Anderson 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”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).[1] (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.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Anderson applied for DIB and SSI in September 2014, alleging disability as of August 31, 2014. (DE 9 Administrative Record (“AR”) 327-32). The Commissioner denied Anderson's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 211-12, 243-44). A hearing was held on August 13, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge Daniel Balutis (the “ALJ”), at which Anderson, who was represented by counsel; Anderson's daughter; and a vocational expert, Marie Kieffer (the “VE”), testified. (AR 101-80). On February 16, 2016, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Anderson, concluding that she was not disabled because despite the limitations caused by her impairments she could perform her past relevant work as a recreation aide, as actually and generally performed, as well as a significant number of unskilled, light exertional jobs in the economy. (AR 78-95). Anderson submitted additional evidence to the Appeals Council (AR 2, 6-69), but the Appeals Council denied Anderson's request for review (AR 1-6, 74), at which point the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Anderson filed a complaint with this Court on April 26, 2017, seeking relief from the Commissioner's final decision. (DE 1). In this appeal, Anderson argues that: (1) the Appeals Council erred in its consideration of evidence submitted with her request for review; (2) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her symptom testimony; and (3) the ALJ failed to properly formulate her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and posed a flawed hypothetical to the VE. (DE 15 at 12-23).

         At the time of the ALJ's decision, Anderson was 50 years old (AR 95, 320); had completed the 10th grade, obtained her GED, and was trained as a certified nursing assistant (“CNA”) (AR 110-11, 357); and had 19 years past work experience as a CNA and six months past work experience as a recreation aide in a nursing home (AR 357). At the time of the hearing, Anderson was five feet, three inches tall, and weighed 256 pounds. (AR 109). Anderson alleges disability due to swelling in her legs and feet, shortness of breath, high blood sugar, lightheadedness, pain in her legs, diabetes, high cholesterol, thyroid problems, asthma, and back pain. (AR 356, 365, 369, 376, 380, 409).

         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 or SSI 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), 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. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         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, 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 omitted).

         B. The ...


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