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Singleton v. Berryhill

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

September 25, 2018




         On July 25, 2017, Plaintiff Jeffery R. Singleton filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's final decision to deny his application for disability benefits. [DE 1]. Alternatively, Singleton seeks remand for further consideration of his application by the Appeals Council, which was denied on May 31, 2017. Singleton filed his opening brief in this matter on December 26, 2017. [DE 22]. On January 31, 2018, the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), filed a response asking the Court to affirm the decision denying benefits. [DE 23]. This matter became ripe on February 13, 2018, when Singleton filed his reply brief. [DE 24]. This Court may enter a ruling in this matter based on the parties' consent, 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. Procedure

         On August 26, 2013, Jeffery R. Singleton (hereinafter, “the Plaintiff”) filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. The Plaintiff also filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on August 26, 2013. In both applications, the Plaintiff alleged disability beginning on August 1, 2012. These claims were initially denied on November 15, 2013, and upon reconsideration on April 10, 2014. Thereafter, the Plaintiff filed a written request for hearing on April 16, 2014. On November 17, 2015, the Plaintiff appeared in Valparaiso, Indiana, and an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) presided over the video hearing from Livonia, Michigan. An impartial vocational expert also appeared and testified at the hearing. The Plaintiff amended his alleged disability onset date to March 1, 2013. The Plaintiff's representative submitted a post-hearing brief objecting to various aspects of the vocational expert's hearing testimony. The ALJ reviewed the post-hearing objections and found them unavailing. Based upon the August 26, 2013 application for disability, Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), the ALJ found the Plaintiff not disabled under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act on February 11, 2016.

         II. Relevant Background

         After the hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision reflecting the following findings based on the five-step disability evaluation prescribed by the Social Security Administration's (“SSA's”) regulations. At Step One, the ALJ found the Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2018 and found that the Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 1, 2013. At Step Two, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease, bilateral shoulder degenerative joint disease, and hepatitis C. At Step Three, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         The ALJ then determined that the Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The ALJ found that Plaintiff can lift and/or carry up to twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, and sit for up to six hours and stand and/or walk for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday. Additionally, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff cannot climb ladders, but can occasionally climb stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Further, the ALJ stated that the Plaintiff must avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights, moving machinery, and vibrating tools, and is restricted form work involving overhead lifting. However, the ALJ noted the Plaintiff requires the freedom to alternate position every thirty minutes.

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff cannot perform past relevant work and has a limited education. At Step Five, considering the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the Plaintiff can perform. Based on these findings, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had not been disabled from the amended date of March 1, 2013.

         III. Standard of Review

         On judicial review under the Act, the Court must accept the Commissioner's factual findings as conclusive if supported by substantive evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). When an ALJ's decision is the final action of the Commissioner, the reviewing court examines the ALJ's decision to determine whether substantial evidence supports it and whether the ALJ applied the proper legal standard. See Briscoe v. Branhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but may be less than the weight of the evidence. Id.

         In his decision, the ALJ must build a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion. Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005). In addition, a reviewing court is not to substitute its own opinion for that of the ALJ, or to re-weigh the evidence. Id. An ALJ must minimally express his analysis of evidence in order to allow the reviewing court to trace the path of his reasoning and to be certain that the ALJ considered the necessary evidence. See Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002). The ALJ need not specially address every piece of evidence in the record. O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2010).

         IV. Issue for Review

         In this case, the Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in relying on vocational expert testimony to fulfill his Step 5 burden without properly addressing post-hearing objections to the vocational expert's testimony [DE 22 at 4-11]. In his opinion, the ALJ overruled seven post-hearing objections raised by Plaintiff. [DE 13 at 17-21].

         Plaintiff's appeal here challenges the ALJ's decision overruling his fourth objection, which argued that reliance on the vocational expert's testimony identifying existing jobs that would allow Plaintiff to “switch positions after 30 minutes or so” would violate SSR 00-1C addressing disability claims under both the Social Security Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) after the Supreme Court's decision in Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp.,526 U.S. 795, 803 (1999). [DE 13 at 73]. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that by accepting the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ failed to determine whether this specific sit/stand option constituted a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) such that his Step 5 analysis may have improperly identified jobs that included the sit/stand option. In support, Plaintiff notes that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (“EEOC's”) conclusion that a “sit/stand option” in a workplace constitutes a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA and cites SSR 00-1C and Cleveland for the proposition that ...

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