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Wallace v. Berryhill

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

August 31, 2018

ALONZO JEROME WALLACE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT CHIEF JUDGE

         Plaintiff Alonzo Jerome Wallace seeks review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying his application for disability insurance benefits and for supplemental security income. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied him disability benefits and supplemental security income and erred by failing to give good reasons for discounting the opinion of a treating medical source; failing to incorporate appropriate limitations regarding concentration, persistence, and pace into the hypothetical posed to the vocational expert, and therefore, into his Residual Functional Capacity; and failing to adequately consider his subjective testimony regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms.

         BACKGROUND

         On May 10, 2014, the Plaintiff filed his Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, and on May 20, 2014, also filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning on November 3, 2012. (R. 15.) His claims were denied initially on June 23, 2014, and upon reconsideration on October 20, 2014. (Id.) On April 11, 2016, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Id.) Scott B. Silver, a vocational expert, also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.) On May 3, 2016, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's application, finding he was not disabled as of his alleged onset date. (R. 15-26.) On July 26, 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. 1-3.)

         On September 20, 2017, the Plaintiff filed this claim [ECF No. 1] in federal court against the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         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), 1382c(a)(3)(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), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. 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 since his alleged onset date, November 3, 2012. (R. 17.)

         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), 416.920(c). In this case, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with herniated disc at ¶ 5-S1 status-post right L5-S1 discectomy, S1 root decompression, and revision decompression at ¶ 5-S1 and right-sided approach transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion (TLIF) at ¶ 5-S1 with L5-S1 lateral mass fusion, degenerative joint disease of the bilateral knees, colon cancer, and major depressive disorder. (R. 17.) 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. (Id.) The ALJ found that the Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments of cocaine use disorder and benign hypertension were not severe impairments because they did not cause more than minimal functional limitations. (R. 18.)

         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), 416.920(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), 416.920(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, despite his limitations-to determine whether he can perform “past relevant work, ” §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(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), 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the listings in Appendix 1, and found that the Plaintiff had mild restriction in activities of daily living, no difficulties with social functioning, and moderate difficulties with regard to concentration, persistence, and pace. (R. 18.) The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except:

[H]e must be able to alternate to standing for five minutes after every thirty minutes of sitting. The claimant is limited to standing to two hours in an eight-hour workday and he must be able to alternate to sitting for five minutes after every thirty minutes of standing. He is able to walk two hours in an eight-hour workday and he must be able to alternate to sit for five minutes after every thirty minutes of walking. The claimant is limited to pushing and/or pulling amounts as much as he can lift and carry. He can occasionally climb on ladders, ropes, and scaffolding. The claimant can never crawl. He can occasionally be exposed to unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts. The claimant can frequently be exposed to humidity and wetness. He can occasionally be exposed to wet slippery surfaces. The claimant is limited to performing simple, routine tasks. The time off task can be accommodated by normal breaks.

(R. 19.)

         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 the alleged symptoms. (R. 23.) But, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's testimony and prior statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting ...


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