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Miller 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 Michael S. Miller seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying his applications for disability and disability insurance benefits as well as supplemental security income. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied his applications and erred by failing to properly weigh and evaluate medical opinions of record; failing to properly formulate the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, which caused her to rely on a flawed hypothetical to the vocational expert; and failing to support the step three Listing analysis with substantial evidence.


         On February 25, 2014, the Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits as well as a Title XVI application for supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2009. (R. at 661-68.) His claims were denied initially on December 1, 2014, and upon reconsideration on March 24, 2015. (522-27, 531-38.) On September 3, 2015, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (R. 585.) Marie Keiffer, a vocational expert, also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.) The ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision, and the Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council on January 5, 2016. (R. 587-89.) The Appeals Council remanded the case back to the ALJ for further review. (R. 507.) The ALJ held a second hearing on August 24, 2016, at which vocational expert (VE) Richard Riedl testified. (R. 637.) On November 17, 2016, the ALJ denied the Plaintiff's applications, finding that he was not disabled as of his alleged onset date. (R. 62-85.) On August 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 October 14, 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), 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 disability onset date, January 1, 2009. (R. 65.)

         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 bilateral knee osteoarthritis, chronic right patellar tendon dysfunction and disruption, right knee replacement surgery with subsequent perioprothetic infection, hardware removal and revision surgery, status post myocardial infarction, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, panic disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, personality disorder, substance-induced mood disorder, and poly-substance dependence. (R. 65.) 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 also found that the Plaintiff had other medically determinable, but non-severe, impairments, including gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD) and hypertension, treatment for a tear to his Achilles tendon, carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, and dermatitis. (R. 65-66.)

         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 physically, 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. (R. 66-70.) The ALJ then found that the Plaintiff had an RFC to perform less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b):

He can lift, carry, push and pull ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally, stand and walk in combination for two hours during an eight-hour workday, and sit for at least six hours throughout the workday. As to postural changes, he can climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl on an occasional basis, but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and he should avoid concentrated exposure to hazards. The claimant retains the mental residual functional capacity to understand, remember, and carry out simple tasks, attend to such a task for a sufficient period to complete tasks, and manage the stresses involved with simple work. With respect to social interactions, he can relate on at least a superficial and ongoing basis with co-workers and supervisors.

(R. 70.)

         The ALJ stated that this RFC “has been assessed based on all the evidence with consideration of the limitations and restrictions imposed by the combined effects of all the claimant's medically determinable impairments . . . .” (R. 83.) 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 extent to which it supported the Plaintiff's alleged symptoms. (R. 70-83.) In looking to the objective medical evidence, the ALJ considered-in considerable detail-opinions, evaluations, and treating records from numerous sources. But, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms were not consistent with this and other evidence and did not support any greater limitations than expounded in the RFC. (R. 71.) This ...

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