United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
CASSANDRA R. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
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
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.
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.
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).
STANDARD FOR 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
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
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