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Hurley v. Berryhill

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

September 5, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Jennifer M. Hurley seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her application for disability and disability insurance benefits. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied her application and erred by failing to base the step five finding on substantial evidence where the vocational expert did not adequately describe his methodologies, failing to give good reasons for discounting the opinion of a treating physician, and failing to include appropriate mental limitations in the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity.


         On February 28, 2014, the Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning on May 29, 2013. (R. at 20.) Her claims were denied initially on June 9, 2014, and upon reconsideration on August 20, 2014. (Id.) On May 4, 2016, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Id.) Scott B. Silver, a vocational expert (VE), also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.) On September 8, 2016, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's application, finding she was not disabled from her alleged onset date. (R. 20-37.) On August 9, 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 October 9, 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 her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work, but also any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering her 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 since her alleged disability onset date, May 29, 2013. (R. 22.)

         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 multiple severe impairments, including fibromyalgia, asthma/sinusitis, migraine headaches, obesity and sleep apnea, bilateral wrist pain due to carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS)/ ulnar nerve compression, history of generalized abdominal pain with diverticulitis/chronic gastritis, and bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (Id.) The ALJ found that these impairments significantly limited the Plaintiff's ability to perform the basic mental and physical demands of work. (Id.) The ALJ also found that the Plaintiff had diabetes but that this condition was non-severe. (R. 22-23.)

         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 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. (R. 23-25.) The ALJ then found that the Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) in that she could:

[L]ift carry, push and pull 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; can sit, stand and walk for at least six hours out of an eight-hour workday[] but would need additional limitations as follows: she needs a sit/stand option (which allows for alternating between sitting and standing up to every 30 minutes, if needed, but the positional change will not render the individual off task); only occasional climbing or ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling; never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no forceful grasping or gripping with both hands; needs to avoid concentrated exposure to loud noise, bright/flashing lights, and pulmonary irritants (i.e., fumes, odors, dust, gases, poorly ventilated areas and chemicals). Mentally, the claimant is limited to understanding, remembering, in carrying out tasks consistent with unskilled work (defined as an occupations that can be fully learned within a short period of time of no more than 30 days, and requires little or no judgment to perform simple tasks), with the ability to sustain those tasks throughout the eight-hour workday without frequent redirection to tasks; no fast-paced work or work requiring a regimented pace of production; and only occasional interactions with others, including supervisors, coworkers and the general public.

(R. 25-26.)

         After analyzing the record, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled as of her 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. 29.) But, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects ...

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