United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
STEPHEN L. STRAIN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
Stephen Strain suffers from over a dozen physical and mental
impairments, some of which are severe. He applied for social
security disability benefits, claiming that he was no longer
able to work as of January 1, 2009, but the Commissioner
denied his application. Strain filed this action seeking
review of that decision. For the following reasons, the Court
reverses and remands this action for further proceedings.
early 2009, Strain has continuously been treated by the
health administration of the U.S. Department of Veterans
Affairs for chronic pain in his knees and mental illnesses,
including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a
history of suicide attempts. He also suffers from severe
obesity and back pain, along with liver, kidney, and colon
problems, hearing loss, high blood pressure, dyslipidemia,
right hip and foot pain, allergies, acid reflux, migraines,
tremors, and a history of polysubstance abuse. Strain
regularly uses a cane to ambulate and takes a long list of
medications to help with his symptoms. Strain's emotional
support dog accompanies Strain everywhere and has been
“an integral part” of Strain's improvement.
only consultative examinations of record occurred in May 2016
(Tr. 452-64). Those examinations revealed in relevant part
that Strain had poor concentration, memory problems,
difficulty with social interactions, and an inability to walk
more than short distances up to three or four hours in an
entire day (while frequently alternating between sitting and
standing). Thereafter, state reviewing agents opined that
Strain was capable of performing the exertional tasks
required of medium work (Tr. 93-116).
the ALJ agreed with the reviewing agents in that Strain's
impairments did not prevent him from performing medium work
(with few physical restrictions) that could only involve
simple instructions and work-related decision-making with
occasional interactions with others. Based on testimony from
a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded
that a person with that residual functional capacity would
still be able to perform work as a dining room attendant,
prep cook, and kitchen helper. 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 Strain was not disabled and
denied his claim. The Appeals Council denied review, so
Strain filed this action, asking that the Commissioner's
decision be reversed with either an award of benefits or
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
issues. Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539. While the ALJ is not
required to address every piece of evidence or testimony
presented, the ALJ must provide a “logical
bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions.
Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).
benefits are available only to those individuals who can
establish disability under the terms of the Social Security
Act. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir.
1998). Specifically, the claimant must be unable “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). The Social
Security regulations create a five-step sequential evaluation
process to be used in determining whether the claimant has
established a disability. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). The steps are to be used in the
1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial
2. Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment;
3. Whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one
listed in ...