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Phillips v. Berryhill

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

August 15, 2018




         Plaintiff Wilbur Leland Phillips II seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”) denying his application for disability and disability insurance benefits. The Plaintiff, proceeding pro se in the instant action, argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied him Social Security Disability benefits and erred by failing to adequately consider the Plaintiff's credibility and by overemphasizing his ability to perform daily living activities.


         On August 1, 2014, the Plaintiff filed his Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning on March 18, 2014. (R. 12.) His claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Id.) On November 2, 2016, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel, as well as with a non-attorney representative, and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Id.) Dale A. Thomas, a vocational expert, also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.) On February 15, 2017, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's application, finding he was not disabled as of his alleged onset date. (R. 12-23.) On September 13, 2017, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. 1-4.)

         On November 9, 2017, the Plaintiff filed this claim in federal court against the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.


         Disability is defined as the “inability 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). To be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that his physical or mental limitations prevent him from doing not only his previous work, but also any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering his age, education, and work experience. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The first step is to determine whether the claimant no longer engages in substantial gainful activity (SGA). Id. In the case at hand, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff has been unable to engage in SGA from his alleged onset date. (R. 14.)

         In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting his ability to do basic work activities under § 404.1520(c). In this case, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff has the severe impairments of “degenerative disc disease of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine, status post cervical and lumbar fusion.” (R. 14.) The ALJ found that these impairments caused more than minimal limitations in the Plaintiff's ability to perform the basic mental and physical demands of work. (R. 14-15.) The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's other alleged or diagnosed impairments, including bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, depressive disorder, and unspecified anxiety disorder, were non-severe. (R. 15-17.)

         Step three requires the ALJ to “consider the medical severity of [the] impairment” to determine whether the impairment “meets or equals one of the [the] listings in appendix 1 . . . .” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant's impairment(s), considered singly or in combination with other impairments, rise to this level, there is a presumption of disability “without considering [the claimant's] age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(d). But, if the impairment(s), either singly or in combination, fall short, the ALJ must proceed to step four and examine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (RFC)-the types of things he can still do physically, despite his limitations-to determine whether he can perform “past relevant work, ” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), or whether the claimant can “make an adjustment to other work” given the claimant's “age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the listings in Appendix 1 and that he had the RFC to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) except that:

[T]he claimant can occasionally push and/or pull with the bilateral upper extremities, he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, he can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, he can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl, he can occasionally reach overhead with the bilateral upper extremities, and he should avoid work activity involving vibratory hand tools.

(R. 18.)

         After analyzing the record, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled as of his alleged onset date. The ALJ evaluated the objective medical evidence and the Plaintiff's subjective symptoms and found that the Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms. (R. 19.) But, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's testimony and prior statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were “not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” (R. 19-20.) The Plaintiff testified that he had difficulty with stabbing back and neck pain as well as both of his hands occasionally feeling like he had needles in them, and that his pain became worse when mowing the lawn, washing dishes, prolonged standing or sitting, bending over, and raising his arms. (R. 19.) He stated that he can walk around the block with his granddaughter, can lift and carry a gallon of milk, sit for ...

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