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McCullough v. Berryhill

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

August 17, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Brandy Elizabeth McCullough seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her applications for disability and disability insurance benefits. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied her applications and erred by improperly weighing the record opinions of the Social Security Administration's examiners, not accounting for the Plaintiff's devolving psychological and intellectual capabilities, and by overemphasizing daily activities.


         On September 5, 2014, the Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning July 20, 3013. (R. 11.) Her claims were denied initially on December 8, 2014, and upon reconsideration on February 16, 2015. (Id.) On February 16, 2016, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Id.) A vocational expert, Marie Barhydt, also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.) On June 29, 2016, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's applications, finding she was not disabled from her alleged onset date. (R. 8-27.) On June 15, 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 August 4, 2017, the Plaintiff filed this claim [ECF No. 1] 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 had not engaged in SGA since her alleged disability onset date, July 20, 2013. (R. 13.)

         In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting her ability to do basic work activities under § 404.1520(c). In this case, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had three severe impairments, specifically mild diplegic cerebral palsy, scoliosis, and obesity. (Id.) The ALJ discussed a number of the Plaintiff's other complaints at length, including chest pain, chronic leg edema, rheumatoid arthritis, neck pain, knee pain, and mental impairments including learning problems, depression, anxiety, and memory difficulties, but did not find that any of them were severe.

         Step three requires the ALJ to “consider the medical severity of [the] impairment” to determine whether the impairment “meets or equals one of [the] listings in appendix 1 . . . .” 20 C.F.R. § 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 she can still do physically, despite her limitations-to determine whether she 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 she had the RFC to perform light work with the following exceptions:

“limited to lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally. The claimant can sit at least six hours in an eight-hour workday and stand and/or walk six hours in an eight-hour workday. The claimant should not climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally bend and stoop in addition to what is required to sit. The claimant can occasionally use ramps and stairs. Aside from use of ramps and stairs on an occasional basis, the claimant should not work upon uneven surfaces. It is best that the claimant not work around exposed heights and open and dangerous machinery such as open flames and fast moving blades.”

(R. 21.)

         The ALJ evaluated two consultative exams performed on the Plaintiff: a psychological examination performed by Dr. Wade and a physical examination performed by Dr. Kamineni. The ALJ accorded little weight to each.

         Dr. Wade opined that the Plaintiff had a mild intellectual disability, social anxiety disorder, and major depressive disorder. With respect to the intellectual disability, Dr. Wade specified that he tested the Plaintiff's I.Q. and she scored 75 overall.[1] He also noted that she was a poor historian and inattentive to tasks, that her understanding appeared limited at times, and that her concentration was poor. With respect to the social anxiety, Dr. Wade noted that the Plaintiff would likely have difficulty in some social interactions. (R. 18.) Dr. Wade did not articulate any specific limitations due to the Plaintiff's depression.

         The ALJ rejected the diagnosis of intellectual disability, citing the Plaintiff's work history, and supposed inconsistencies in the Plaintiff's reporting of her attempts to achieve her GED and accommodations in school. The ALJ rejected the diagnosis of anxiety, again citing the Plaintiff's work history, adding “the [Plaintiff's] ability to perform jobs that required significant interactions with the public on a long-term basis is inconsistent with the allegedly lifelong limiting social anxiety.” (R. 18.) ...

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