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Williams v. Berryhill

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

October 31, 2018

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



         Cassandra Williams underwent surgery on her right shoulder to repair a torn rotator cuff. She attempted to return to work afterwards but continued to experience pain that her doctors could not explain, eventually leading her to retire. Ms. Williams applied for social security disability benefits, alleging that she became disabled at the time of her surgery. An administrative law judge found, however, that she still retained the capacity to perform her past work, so her claim was denied. Ms. Williams appeals that decision, but for the reasons explained below, the Court affirms the denial of benefits.


         Ms. Williams worked for a number of years for an appliance manufacturer, first as an account representative and then as a lead representative. Around the age of 61, she was diagnosed with a rotator cuff tear after experiencing pain for about a year. After conservative treatment failed to resolve the problem, Ms. Williams underwent surgery in April 2013 to repair her rotator cuff. Following the surgery, Ms. Williams continued to complain of pain, so she underwent an MRI, which showed that the rotator cuff repair remained intact. When Ms. Williams continued to complain of pain, the doctor noted that he was “at a loss to fully explain her discomfort” and that there was a “disconnect between her objective findings and her subjective complaints.” (R. 362). He recommended that she undergo a work hardening program, though he expressed question at that time whether she would be able to return to work in light of the pain she was reporting. In light of her persisting reports of pain, Ms. Williams underwent an arthroscopy on her right shoulder in December 2013. Following that procedure, her treating physician stated he “would anticipate that she should have no difficulty returning to near-normal shoulder function.” (R. 356). When her pain still failed to improve, Ms. Williams was referred to a pain management specialist and she received a number of injections over the next year. While the injections provided some relief for a period of time, they did not relieve the pain entirely.

         Ms. Williams had attempted to return to work several times after her first shoulder surgery. However, her work activities, including reaching in front of her to type, caused too much discomfort in her shoulder, so she elected to retire around March 2014. At that time, she applied for social security disability benefits, claiming that she became disabled as of the date of her first surgery. An administrative law judge ultimately found that Ms. Williams was limited to performing sedentary work and that she could not reach above her shoulder with her right arm. In reaching that conclusion, the ALJ recited all of the medical evidence in the record, and evaluated the opinion evidence and Ms. William's testimony at the hearing. Based on testimony by a vocational expert, the ALJ found that a person with Ms. Williams' residual functional capacity would be able to perform her past relevant work, so she was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied review, so Ms. Williams filed this action.


         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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