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Strain v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

September 12, 2018

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



         Veteran 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.


         Since 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.

         The 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).

         Ultimately, 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.


         Because 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).

         It is 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).


         Disability 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 following order:

1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity;
2. Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment;
3. Whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one listed in ...

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