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McPeters v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

October 18, 2018

CHRIS L. McPETERS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff, Chris L. McPeters, seeks review of an unfavorable decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits. The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied his application and erred by failing to properly weigh the medical opinion evidence, failing to properly evaluate the Plaintiff's credibility, and relying on a flawed hypothetical question to the vocation expert (VE).


         On March 12, 2013, the Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning January 11, 2012. (R. at 21.) The Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. On August 6, 2015, an administrative law judge (ALJ) held a hearing on the Plaintiff's application, and on August 19, 2015, the ALJ issued a Decision holding that the Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits because he was not disabled from his alleged onset date of January 11, 2012, through the date last insured of June 30, 2014. On March 17, 2017, the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision. The ALJ's decision therefore became the final decision of the Commissioner. The Plaintiff subsequently filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         The Plaintiff was born on August 6, 1964. (R. at 32.) The Plaintiff previously worked as a production assembler, machine feeder, and a conveyor feeder off bearer. (R. at 31.) In this case, the Plaintiff claimed to have become disabled on January 11, 2012. (R. at 220.) The Plaintiff claims to be disabled due to the severe impairments of arthritis, fibromyalgia, and depression. (R. at 23.)


         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 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).

         An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The first step is to determine whether the claimant no longer engages in substantial gainful activity (SGA). 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(b). In the case at hand, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset date of disability, January 11, 2012, through his last date insured of June 30, 2014, and thus, the Plaintiff satisfied the step one inquiry. (R. at 23.)

         In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting the ability to do basic work activities pursuant to § 404.1520(c). Here, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's arthritis, fibromyalgia, and depression were severe impairments because they significantly limited his ability to perform basic work activities. (R. at 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] listings in appendix 1 . . . .” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant's impairment(s), considered singly or in combination with other impairments, rises to this level, he earns a presumption of disability “without considering his age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(d). But, if the impairment(s), either singly or in combination, falls short, an ALJ must move 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 this “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).

         In the case at hand, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, do not meet or equal any of the listings in Appendix 1 and that the Plaintiff has the RFC to:

lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk about 4 hours in an 8-hour workday, and sit about 4 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks. The claimant was to never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, but could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl, and could frequently balance. The claimant was unable to push or pull, but was capable of frequent grasping, fingering, feeling, and reaching. After standing 1 hour, the claimant would need to alternate positions for 5 minutes, while remaining on task. The claimant was limited to simple, routine tasks (20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b)).

(R. at 25.)

         In arriving at the RFC, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause his alleged symptoms, “however, the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible for the reasons explained in this decision.” (R. at 27.) In making the credibility assessment, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's “own statements undermine his subjective allegations of disability.” (R. at 30.) The ALJ cited the Plaintiff's admission that “he walked on the treadmill almost daily and for distances of up to 1mile at a time” and that he mowed the lawn on a riding mower and worked on his car with a wrench for extended periods of time. (R. at 31.)

         The ALJ addressed the opinion evidence of the Plaintiff's treating physician Dr. Hugenberg (a rheumatologist the Plaintiff had seen since March 2012), and Mr. Wangerin (a physician's assistant who was the Plaintiff's primary care medical provider since March 2012), giving the opinions of both only “moderate weight.” (R. at 27-30.) Dr. Hugenberg opined that “although [the Plaintiff's] arthritis is controlled, the headaches and fibromyalgia are very severe and significantly impair his function and ability to work any job demanding physical activity.” (R. at 28, 339.) In contrast, the ALJ assigned “great weight” ...

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