United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division
KRISTEN Y. MASON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
R. CHERRY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT MAGISTRATE JUDGE
matter is before the Court on a Complaint [DE 1], filed by
Plaintiff Kristen Y. Mason on May 9, 2017, and a
Plaintiff's Opening Brief [DE 8], filed by Plaintiff on
August 25, 2017. Plaintiff requests that the December 11,
2015 decision of the Administrative Law Judge denying her
claim for disability insurance benefits be reversed and
remanded for an award of benefits or for further proceedings.
On November 3, 2017, the Commissioner filed a response, and
Plaintiff filed a reply on November 17, 2017. For the
following reasons, the Court denies Plaintiff's request
October 29, 2012, Plaintiff filed an initial application for
disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning
October 31, 2011. (AR 79). On behalf of the Social Security
Administration, the Indiana Disability Determination Bureau
approved Plaintiff's application on June 3, 2013, finding
that she was disabled for a closed period from October 31,
2011, to March 5, 2013. Her claim was approved for the closed
period because she returned to work at the substantial
gainful activity level on March 5, 2013. (AR 87).
November 14, 2013, Plaintiff filed a new application for
disability benefits and alleged an onset date of September
30, 2013. (AR 89). Plaintiff's application was denied
initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff requested a
hearing and, in a pre-hearing brief, requested the reopening
of her prior application. (AR 253-58). On August 13, 2015,
Administrative Law Judge William Pierson (“ALJ”)
held a hearing by video conference. In attendance at the
hearing were Plaintiff, Plaintiff's attorney, and an
impartial vocational expert. On December 11, 2015, the ALJ
issued a written decision that addressed the period of both
applications and determined that Plaintiff had not been under
a disability from October 31, 2011, through the date of the
December 11, 2015 decision, revising the prior decision that
had established disability for the closed period. The ALJ
made the following findings:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the
Social Security Act through December 31, 2018.
2. The claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity
during the following periods: March 5, 2013, to October 1,
3. However, there have been continuous 12-month periods
during which the claimant did not engage in substantial
gainful activity. The remaining findings address the periods
the claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity.
4. The claimant has the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease with a history of diagnosis of
lumbar radiculitis; prior pain clinic diagnosis of
more recent diagnoses of neuropathy/vitamin deficiencies;
much more recent diagnoses of mild osteoarthritis of the
hips, mild degenerative changes in the right ankle, and a
calcaneal spur in the left ankle; and, obesity.
5. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P,
6. After careful consideration of the entire record, the
undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual
functional capacity to perform the full range of sedentary
work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a).
7. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work.
8. The claimant was born [in 1968] and was 43 years old,
which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44, on the
originally alleged disability onset date of October 31, 2011.
She is currently 47 years old, which is defined as a younger
individual 45-49 years old.
9. The claimant has at least a high school education and is
able to communicate in English.
10. Transferability of job skills is not material to the
determination of disability because applying the
Medical-Vocational Rules directly supports a finding of
“not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has
transferable job skills.
11. Considering the claimant's age, education, work
experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs
that exist in significant numbers in the national economy
that the claimant can perform.
12. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined
in the Social Security Act, from October 31, 2011, through
the date of this decision.
Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review,
leaving the ALJ's decision the final decision of the
Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.
Plaintiff filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g) for review of the Agency's decision.
parties filed forms of consent to have this case assigned to
a United States Magistrate Judge to conduct all further
proceedings and to order the entry of a final judgment in
this case. Therefore, this Court has jurisdiction to decide
this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and 42 U.S.C.
Social Security Act authorizes judicial review of the final
decision of the agency and indicates that the
Commissioner's factual findings must be accepted as
conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). Thus, a court reviewing the findings of an ALJ
will reverse only if the findings are not supported by
substantial evidence or if the ALJ has applied an erroneous
legal standard. See Briscoe v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d
345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence consists of
“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) (quoting Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470
(7th Cir. 2003)).
reviews the entire administrative record but does not
reconsider facts, re-weigh the evidence, resolve conflicts in
evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.
See Boiles v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 421, 425 (7th Cir.
2005); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th
Cir. 2000); Butera v. Apfel, 173 F.3d 1049, 1055
(7th Cir. 1999). Thus, the question upon judicial review of
an ALJ's finding that a claimant is not disabled within
the meaning of the Social Security Act is not whether the
claimant is, in fact, disabled, but whether the ALJ
“uses the correct legal standards and the decision is
supported by substantial evidence.” Roddy v.
Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing
O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618
(7th Cir. 2010); Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d
731, 734-35 (7th Cir. 2006); Barnett v. Barnhart,
381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004)). “[I]f the
Commissioner commits an error of law, ” the Court may
reverse the decision “without regard to the volume of
evidence in support of the factual findings.” White
v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 369, 373 (7th Cir. 1999) (citing
Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir.
minimum, an ALJ must articulate his analysis of the evidence
in order to allow the reviewing court to trace the path of
his reasoning and to be assured that the ALJ considered the
important evidence. See Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d
589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002); Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d
300, 307 (7th Cir. 1995); Green v. Shalala, 51 F.3d
96, 101 (7th Cir. 1995). An ALJ must “‘build an
accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [the]
conclusion' so that [a reviewing court] may assess the
validity of the agency's final decision and afford [a
claimant] meaningful review.” Giles v. Astrue,
483 F.3d 483, 487 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Scott,
297 F.3d at 595)); see also O'Connor-Spinner,
627 F.3d at 618 (“An ALJ need not specifically address
every piece of evidence, but must provide a ‘logical
bridge' between the evidence and his
conclusions.”); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d
881, 889 (7th Cir. 2001) (“[T]he ALJ's analysis
must provide some glimpse into the reasoning behind [the]
decision to deny benefits.”).
eligible for disability benefits, a claimant must establish
that she suffers from a “disability” as defined
by the Social Security Act and regulations. The Act defines
“disability” as an inability to engage in any
substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically
determinable physical or mental impairment that can be
expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be
expected to last for a continuous period of not less than
twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To be found
disabled, the claimant's impairment must not only prevent
her from doing her previous work, but considering her age,
education, and work experience, it must also prevent her from
engaging in any other type of substantial gainful activity
that exists in significant numbers in the economy. 42 U.S.C.
§ 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)-(f).
claimant alleges a disability, Social Security regulations
provide a five-step inquiry to evaluate whether the claimant
is entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The
steps are: (1) Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful
activity? If yes, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim
is denied; if no, the inquiry proceeds to step two; (2) Does
the claimant have an impairment or combination of impairments
that are severe? If no, the claimant is not disabled, and the
claim is denied; if yes, the inquiry proceeds to step three;
(3) Do(es) the impairment(s) meet or equal a listed
impairment in the appendix to the regulations? If yes, the
claimant is automatically considered disabled; if no, then
the inquiry proceeds to step four; (4) Can the claimant do
the claimant's past relevant work? If yes, the claimant
is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no, then the
inquiry proceeds to step five; (5) Can the claimant perform
other work given the claimant's residual functional
capacity (RFC), age, education, and experience? If yes, then
the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no,
the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v); see also Scheck v. Barnhart,
357 F.3d 697, 699-700 (7th Cir. 2004).
steps four and five, the ALJ must consider an assessment of
the claimant's RFC. The RFC “is an administrative
assessment of what work-related activities an individual can
perform despite [her] limitations.” Dixon v.
Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1178 (7th Cir. 2001). The RFC
should be based on evidence in the record. Craft v.
Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 676 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20
C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3)). The claimant bears the burden
of proving steps one through four, whereas ...