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Willis v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

August 8, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Stanley Willis was in a car accident, after which he began experiencing a number of serious health conditions that caused severe pain and cognitive disorders. He applied for social security disability benefits, claiming that he was no longer able to work, but the Commissioner denied his application. Mr. Willis filed this action seeking review of that decision. For the following reasons, the Court reverses and remands this action for further proceedings.


         In September 2012, Mr. Willis was in the passenger seat of a vehicle that was hit on the passenger side. He was not hospitalized immediately after the accident, but shortly thereafter he began experiencing pain in his neck, back, arms, and legs. He began seeking treatment, and was eventually diagnosed with degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy, epicondylitis (tennis elbow) in his right arm, and carpal tunnel syndrome in both arms, for which he underwent surgery. His doctors also told him that he needed surgeries on his back and his elbow, but Mr. Willis was unable to afford that. (R. 568, 579, 592). According to Mr. Willis, those conditions caused constant, severe pain and also resulted in numbness, particularly in his right arm and leg. In addition to his physical symptoms, Mr. Willis experienced cognitive impairments, which his doctors suggested may have been caused by a traumatic brain injury in the accident. That caused Mr. Willis to experience difficulty with his memory and with concentration. He also stated that he experienced chronic headaches, which became worse when reading or concentrating.

         Mr. Willis applied for social security disability benefits, claiming that he became disabled at the time of the accident. The ALJ found that Mr. Willis had multiple severe impairments, including degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy, epicondylitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and acquired cognitive dysfunction. However, the ALJ found that Mr. Willis would still be able to perform sedentary work, subject to a number of physical and mental limitations. Based on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that a person with that residual functional capacity would still be able to perform the job of “call out operator, ” which the ALJ found existed in significant numbers. Therefore, the ALJ found that Mr. Willis was not disabled and denied his claim. The Appeals Council denied review, so Mr. Willis filed this action, asking that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded for further proceedings.


         Because the Appeals Council denied review, the Court evaluates the ALJ's decision as the final word of the Commissioner of Social Security. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). This Court will affirm the Commissioner's findings of fact and denial of disability benefits if they are supported by substantial evidence. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). This evidence must be “more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Thus, even if “reasonable minds could differ” about the disability status of the claimant, the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision as long as it is adequately supported. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         It is the duty of the ALJ to weigh the evidence, resolve material conflicts, make independent findings of fact, and dispose of the case accordingly. Perales, 402 U.S. at 399-400. In this substantial-evidence determination, the Court considers the entire administrative record but does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute the Court's own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Nevertheless, the Court conducts a “critical review of the evidence” before affirming the Commissioner's decision. Id. An ALJ must evaluate both the evidence favoring the claimant as well as the evidence favoring the claim's rejection and may not ignore an entire line of evidence that is contrary to his or her findings. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001). Consequently, an ALJ's decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues. Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539. While the ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, the ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).


         Disability benefits are available only to those individuals who can establish disability under the terms of the Social Security Act. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998). Specifically, the claimant must be unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Social Security regulations create a five-step sequential evaluation process to be used in determining whether the claimant has established a disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). The steps are to be used in the following order:

1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity;
2. Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment;
3. Whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one listed in ...

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