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Annis v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 31, 2018

ROBIN ANNIS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Robin Annis appeals to the district court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying her application under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”).[1] (See DE 1). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be AFFIRMED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On December 6, 2007, Annis filed an application for DIB and an application for SSI, alleging disability as of August 31, 2007. (DE 10 Administrative Record (“AR”) 276-90). Annis was last insured for DIB on December 31, 2010 (AR 17), and therefore, she must establish that she was disabled as of that date. See Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1154 (7th Cir. 1997) (explaining that with respect to a DIB claim, a claimant must establish that she was disabled as of her date last insured in order to recover DIB). Both of Annis's applications were denied. (AR 153-60). At Annis's request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge on January 23, 2013. (AR 71-115). The Administrative Law Judge issued a partially favorable decision, finding that Annis was disabled as of April 1, 2012, for purposes of SSI, but was not disabled for purposes of DIB. (AR 122-40). Annis requested that the Appeals Council review the Administrative Law Judge's decision, and the Appeals Council affirmed that Annis was disabled for SSI beginning April 1, 2012, but remanded the decision to consider whether Annis was disabled before April 1, 2012, for purposes of SSI, and whether she qualified for DIB. (AR 149-52).

         A second hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Maryann Bright (the “ALJ”), on October 28, 2014. (AR 45-70). At the hearing, Annis, who was represented by counsel; Michael O'Brien, Annis's boyfriend; and vocational expert Marie Kieffer (the “VE”) testified. (AR 46). On December 12, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Annis was not disabled before April 1, 2012, for purposes of SSI, and that Annis was not disabled for purposes of DIB. (AR 14-35). Annis requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision (AR 10-13), and the Appeals Council denied her request, making the ALJ's decision the final, appealable decision of the Commissioner (AR 1-9); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Annis filed a complaint with this Court on March 31, 2016, seeking relief from the Commissioner's final decision. (DE 1). In her appeal, Annis alleges that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to incorporate her moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace in the hypothetical to the VE; (2) failing to incorporate the conclusions of Dan L. Boen, Ph.D., HSPP, into the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination; and (3) improperly discrediting her testimony and the testimony of Mr. O'Brien. (DE 19 at 7-13).

         II. THE ALJ's FINDINGS

         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).

         In determining whether Annis is disabled as defined by the Act, the ALJ conducted the familiar five-step analytical process, which required her to consider 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 Commissioner's listings, 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. §§ 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). 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.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Annis had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of August 31, 2007. (AR 20). At step two, the ALJ found that Annis had the following severe impairments: alcohol abuse; seizure activity; and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. (AR 20-21).

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Annis did not have an impairment or combination of impairments severe enough to meet or equal a listing. (AR 21-24). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that Annis's symptom testimony was “not entirely credible” and assigned her the following RFC:

[T]he claimant has the [RFC] to perform less than the full range of medium work . . . . The claimant could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and was limited to occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, crouching, kneeling and crawling. Otherwise she could lift/carry and push/pull twenty-five pounds frequently and fifty pounds occasionally and sit or stand/walk for approximately six hours each during an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. With respect to her work environment, the claimant needed to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, pulmonary irritants such as fumes, forklifts, trucks, and automobiles or work with close proximity to hazards including unprotected heights and open and dangerous machinery, open flames, and sharp objects such as knives. The claimant could not perform complex or detailed tasks, but retained the mental residual functional capacity to perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks consistent with unskilled work and could sustain and attend to tasks throughout the eight-hour workday.

(AR 24). Based on this RFC and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found at step four that Annis could perform her past relevant work as a production assembler. (AR 34). Therefore, the ALJ denied Annis's application for SSI prior to April 1, 2012, and denied her application for DIB. (AR 35).

         III. 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 of Social Security, 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).

         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.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. The ALJ's Hypothetical to the VE

         Annis's first argument is that the ALJ failed to account for her mental limitations in the hypotheticals posed to the VE at step five. Specifically, Annis argues that the ALJ erred by failing to incorporate her step-three finding that Annis had ...


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