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Hernandez v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 22, 2018

COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of SSA,[1] Defendant.


          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Patricia Leeann Hernandez appeals to the district court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).[2] (DE 1). For the following reasons, the Commissioner’s decision will be AFFIRMED.


         Hernandez applied for SSI in March 2013, alleging disability as of June 1, 2012. (DE 8 Administrative Record (“AR”) 155-63). The Commissioner denied Hernandez’s application initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 92-95, 101-07). A hearing was held on December 9, 2014, before Administrative Law Judge Maryann Bright (the “ALJ”), at which Hernandez, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert, Sharon Ringenberg (the “VE”), appeared. (AR 31-72). On February 20, 2015, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Hernandez, concluding that she was not disabled because she could perform a significant number of sedentary jobs in the economy despite the limitations caused by her impairments. (AR 14-24). The Appeals Council denied Hernandez’s request for review (AR 1-10), at which point the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.

         Hernandez filed a complaint with this Court on September 2, 2016, seeking relief from the Commissioner’s decision. (DE 1). Hernandez advances just one argument in this appeal: that the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinion of her treating specialist, Dr. Brandon Hardesty. (DE 20 at 5-6).

         At the time of the ALJ’s decision, Hernandez was 28 years old (AR 24, 155); had completed the 10th grade (AR 186); and had past work experience as a cashier, a waitress, and a production assembler (AR 186, 216). At the time of the hearing, Hernandez was five feet, eight inches tall, and weighed 250 pounds. (AR 185). Hernandez alleges disability due to antiphospholipid antibody syndrome, history of deep venous thrombosis (“DVT”), torn meniscus in the left knee, obesity, and lumbar degenerative disc disease. (DE 20 at 2).


         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); see 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). 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.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Law

         Under the Act, a plaintiff is entitled to SSI if she “is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         In determining whether Hernandez is disabled as defined by the Act, the ALJ conducted the familiar five-step analytical process, which required her to assess 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 impairments listed by the Commissioner, 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.[3] See Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001); 20 C.F.R. § 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.

         B. The ...

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