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Misty S. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, New Albany Division

July 30, 2018

MISTY S., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration, [2] Defendant.

          ORDER

          SARAH EVANS BARKER, JUDGE

         Plaintiff Misty S. (“Misty”) appeals the final decision of the Deputy Commissioner for Operations (“Deputy Commissioner”) of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying her June 9, 2014, application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). R. (Dkt. 13) at 11. The application was initially denied on September 12, 2014, R. at 74, and upon reconsideration on September 30, 2014. R. at 79. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) conducted a hearing on June 7, 2016, R. at 28, resulting in a decision on August 31, 2016, that Misty was not disabled and thus not entitled to receive DIB. R. at 8. The Appeals Council denied review on August 24, 2017, and the Deputy Commissioner's decision became final. R. at 1. On October 27, 2017, Misty timely filed this civil action seeking judicial review of that the decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Dkt. 1.

         For the reasons below, the decision is reversed and the case remanded for action consistent with this order.

         Background [[3]]

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i) to (v), in concluding that Misty was not disabled. Specifically, the ALJ found as follows:

• At Step One, Misty had not engaged in substantial gainful activity[4] since May 25, 2014, the alleged disability onset date. R. at 13.
• At Step Two, she had the following severe impairments: “history of left knee crush injury, degenerative joint disease/bursitis of the left knee, status post fluid removal surgery and obesity.” Id. (citation omitted).
• At Step Three, she did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. R. at 14.
• After Step Three but before Step Four, Misty had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a). She can sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday but must be permitted to alternate to standing or walking for three to five minutes after 30 to 45 minutes of sitting, and can stand or walk for two hours in an eight-hour workday but must be permitted to alternate to sitting for three to five minutes after every 20 to 30 minutes of standing or walking. She can occasionally operate foot controls with the left lower extremity. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ramps and stairs, but can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She is limited to occasional exposure to unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, and vibration, and must avoid concentrated exposure to slippery, wet or moving surfaces.” Id.
• At Step Four, relying on the testimony of the vocational expert (“VE”) considering Misty's RFC, she was incapable of performing her past relevant work as a waitress and utility worker. R. at 19.
• At Step Five, relying on the testimony of the VE and in light of Misty's age (30 years old on the alleged disability onset date, May 25, 2014), education (at least a high school graduate), and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she could have performed through the date of the decision. R. at 19-20.

         Standard of Review

         Upon review of the Deputy Commissioner's decision,

[w]e will uphold [it] if it applies the correct legal standard and is supported by substantial evidence. Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 926 (7th Cir. 2010). Substantial evidence is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Id. (quoting Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007)). A decision denying benefits need not discuss every piece of evidence, but if it lacks an adequate discussion of the issues, it will be remanded. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 562 (7th Cir. 2009). Our review is limited to the reasons articulated by the ALJ in her decision. Larson v. Astrue, 615 F.3d 744, 749 (7th Cir. 2010).

Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 306 (7th Cir. 2010). In determining whether the decision was properly supported, we neither reweigh the evidence nor assess the credibility of witness, nor substitute our judgment for the Deputy Commissioner's. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003).

         Analysis

         Misty presents three issues for review: whether the ALJ erred (1) by failing to include a limitation in the RFC finding that she would need to elevate her legs, [5] (2) in his evaluation of her subjective symptoms, and (3) by giving only partial weight to the opinion of her treating orthopedic specialist, Travis E. Clegg, M.D. (“Dr. Clegg”). We agree the ALJ did not provide an adequate explanation of how the above issues were resolved in favor of denying benefits. This was reversible error.

         The SSA's regulations and rulings, as interpreted by the Seventh Circuit, impose on the ALJ a duty to articulate certain critical aspects of his decision. “The determination or decision must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the individual's symptoms, be consistent with and supported by the evidence, and be clearly articulated so the individual and any subsequent reviewer can assess how the adjudicator evaluated the individual's symptoms.” Social Security Ruling 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304 at *10. In assessing a claimant's symptoms, the ALJ is ...


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