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Plump v. Berryhill

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

August 13, 2018

STANLEY PLUMP, JR., Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Stanley Plump, Jr. appeals the denial of his application for disability insurance benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Plump was 38 years old on the alleged onset date of his disability, December 1, 2012. The administrative law judge found that he had severe impairments of rheumatic heart disease, status-post mitral valve replacement, and anxiety. [AR at 24.][1] He previously worked as a furnace helper and a waste collector, and at the time of his hearing before the ALJ on November 5, 2015, continued to work part-time as a janitor at a steel mill. The ALJ issued a written decision denying Plump's claim for benefits on December 28, 2015. [AR 21-33.] The ALJ concluded that Plump‘s severe impairments do not conclusively establish disability and further found that Plump possessed the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work with certain limitations. The ALJ then found that Plump was capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and that he is, therefore, not disabled. [AR at 27, 32-33.]

         Plump asks me to reverse the ALJ's decision and remand for further proceedings by the Social Security Administration. My review of the ALJ's decision is deferential. I must affirm it if it is supported by substantial evidence, meaning “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” McKinzey v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 889 (7th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). I can't reweigh the evidence or substitute my judgment for that of the ALJ. Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015). But these standards do not mean that I “will simply rubber-stamp the Commissioner's decision without a critical review of the evidence.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000).

         It's worth noting that “an ALJ is not required to provide a complete and written evaluation of every piece of testimony and evidence, but ‘must build a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.'” Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015), quoting Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005). In other words, the ALJ's decision must offer an explanation of the rationale from the evidence to his or her conclusions “sufficient to allow us, as a reviewing court, to assess the validity of the agency's ultimate findings and afford [the claimant] meaningful judicial review.” Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th Cir. 2014).



         Plump challenges the ALJ's handling of his obesity. I find no error. The ALJ does not ignore Plump's weight, noting that he is 5'9" tall and weighs 209 pounds, with a body mass index of 30.86 that puts him in the Level 1 obesity category. [AR at 27.] I note that this is only barely within the lowest (BMIs of 30.0 - 34.9) of three levels of obesity under the applicable guidelines. SSR 02-1p, citing Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults (NIH Publication No. 98-4083, September 1998).

         The issue regarding Plump's obesity seems to have come out of nowhere. His application for benefits did not claim disability based on obesity, and the issue was not referenced in his hearing before the ALJ. What's more, Plump cites no evidence - medical or otherwise - that his weight impacted his functioning or was a disabling impairment. On this record, I see no basis for requiring the ALJ's decision to do more than it did, namely acknowledge that Plump met the guidelines for a very low level of obesity, and indicate that the ALJ “fully considered” the cumulative effects of Plump's obesity but found it to have no more limiting effect on his ability to work than contemplated by the sedentary RFC. [AR at 27.] Where the ALJ considered the impact of marginal obesity - even despite the fact that the claimant “did not specifically claim obesity as an impairment (either in his disability application or at his hearing), ” - and where the claimant does not “specify how his obesity further impaired his ability to work, ” I readily find that any remand for more explicit and detailed consideration of obesity is unnecessary and would not affect the outcome of the case. Skarbek v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 500, 504 (7th Cir. 2004). See also Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 736-37 (7thCir. 2006).

         Mental Functioning

         Next Plump seeks a remand based on the ALJ's handling of his mental functioning. Like the issue of obesity, Plump's application for benefits made no claim of mental impairments. Psychological issues were first raised at the hearing, at which Plump's counsel reported that Plump had been receiving counseling. But counsel expressly stated that “We don't believe, and we're not arguing, Judge, that depression would be sufficient for him to be found disabled, ” and “I don't think it affects his thinking, to the point that that would interfere with his ability to function.” [AR at 55.]

         Because the record of medical sources is devoid of any reference to anxiety or other mental health problems, the ALJ apparently based his determination that Plump has a severe impairment of anxiety on Plump's hearing testimony (which was scant on the subject) and the opinions of a counselor, Susan Geist, whom Plump and his wife had been seeing through his church. Contrary to Plump's argument, the ALJ did not reject Geist's opinion. The parties agree that Geist is not a “medically acceptable source” under 20 C.F.R. §404.1513(a) and §416.913(a), but the ALJ nonetheless afforded her opinions “some weight, ” based on her provision of counseling services to Plump for some months leading up to the hearing. [AR at 30.]

         Plump's other arguments concerning anxiety - that the ALJ erred in his analysis of its equivalence to a listed impairment and in devising accommodations in the RFC - are non-starters. First of all, the claimant has the burden of showing medical equivalence. “[T]he burden of proof at step 3 rests with the claimant, and the ALJ has no duty to analyze equivalance when the claimant...presents no substantial evidence of it.” Eskew v. Astrue, 462 Fed.Appx. 613, 616 (7th Cir. 2011). See also Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000). Plump's 11th-hour references to anxiety (and non-medically acceptable evidence on the subject) was not substantial evidence of listing equivalence.

         Plump contends that the ALJ was required to consult a medical expert designated by the Commissioner on the issue of equivalence. But it's a “finding of medical equivalence” (not a rejection of medical equivalence) that “requires an expert's opinion on the issue.” Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015) (emphasis added). Far from a perfunctory analysis of the equivalence issue, the ALJ carefully sets out the requirements of Listing 12.06 for anxiety-related disorders and explains his conclusions, with reference to the evidence of record, that Plump's anxiety does not satisfy or medically equal the Listing's criteria. [AR at 26.]

         Residual ...

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