United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
SOUTH CHRISTOPHER D. BUGGS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
Buggs was hospitalized in May 2013 for swelling in his lower
legs, ankles, and feet, and in January 2014, he began
experiencing right foot drop of an uncertain etiology. He
applied for social security disability benefits, claiming
that he was no longer able to work, but the Commissioner
denied his application. Buggs filed this action seeking
review of that decision. For the following reasons, the Court
reverses and remands this action for further proceedings.
May 2013, Buggs has continuously sought medical treatment (in
relevant part) for right lower extremity problems, including
leg edema, ankle arthritis, and foot drop. He takes
hydrocodone to help with unbearable pain, but because he
doesn't like taking pain pills he regularly suffers from
moderate pain. He has tried steroid injections and uses an
ankle foot orthosis and cane to ambulate.
only consultative examination of record occurred on August 4,
2014 (Tr. 412-17). At that time, Dr. Ibekie observed that
Buggs walked with a “slightly bending posture using a
cane.” Upon examination, Buggs presented with limited
range of motion, decreased strength, and abnormal sensation
to his right ankle and foot. Dr. Ibekie reported that:
[Buggs] has an ataxic gait using a cane. He is able to stoop
and squat with difficulty. He is unable to walk heel to toe
and tandemly. He is able to get on and off the examination
table with difficulty and did not require any assistance. He
is able to stand from a sitting position with difficulty.
Ibekie opined that Buggs suffered from a history of right
foot drop since 2013 with a limited range of motion and a
history of pain and paresthesia in the right lower extremity.
the reviewing state agents opined that Buggs was capable of
performing sedentary work (Tr. 176-92, 194-210).
January 2015, an EMG confirmed that Buggs had nerve damage in
his right lower extremity (Tr. 449-53). Specifically, the EMG
revealed “subtle denervation changes” in the
“anterior tibialis muscle[, ] consistent with history
of recent foot drop; however, there is no evidence for
ongoing or active peroneal nerve entrapment at the fibular
head or for sciatic nerve dysfunction.” Nor was there
any electrical evidence for lumbosacral radiculopathy. Buggs
was able to heel and toe walk on that date, but he was
limited by pain and mild swelling. There was a mild
Tinel's sign at the fibular head. It was believed that
Buggs had suffered some peroneal or distal sciatic nerve
injury several months prior and he was referred to a
September 2015, Buggs sought treatment with a podiatrist, Dr.
Michael C. Lyons, who diagnosed Buggs with right foot drop
and ankle arthritis (Tr. 492). Dr. Lyons continued to
document Buggs' problems with pain, swelling, and reduced
strength in his right foot. As late as August 2016, Dr. Lyons
noted that Buggs had not had any improvement in his pain,
range of motion, and muscle strength (Tr. 465). Dr. Lyons
recommended a second opinion from a neurologist and discussed
the possibility of Buggs being placed on disability
“given his lack of improvement, lack of function, and
this evidence, the ALJ found that Buggs' severe
impairments of right ankle arthritis and right foot drop did
not render Buggs disabled because he was still able to
perform sedentary work, subject to a number of physical
limitations including the need to use a cane “for
prolonged ambulation.” Based on testimony from a
vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that a person with that
residual functional capacity would still be able to perform
work as a call out operator, addresser, tube operator,
eyeglass frames polisher, surveillance system monitor, charge
account clerk, and telephone order clerk. The VE testified
that consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles,
these jobs existed in significant numbers. Given the VE's
testimony, the ALJ found that Buggs was not disabled and
denied his claim. The Appeals Council denied review, so Buggs
filed this action, asking that the Commissioner's
decision be reversed and remanded for further proceedings.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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