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Higdon v. Berryhill

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

November 6, 2018

JEFFREY P. HIGDON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Jeffrey Higdon appeals the denial of his application for social security disability benefits. An administrative law judge found that Mr. Higdon suffered from severe impairments that prevented him from performing his past work, but that Mr. Higdon still had the ability to perform other jobs. On appeal, Mr. Higdon argues that the judge erred in evaluating the extent of his restrictions. For the following reasons, the Court remands this action to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Mr. Higdon worked for years in jobs that ranged from medium to very heavy exertional levels. However, he claims that he became unable to work prior to his fiftieth birthday due to several health conditions. He had undergone multiple shoulder surgeries and also experienced chronic back pain. He reported experiencing pain and numbness in his arms. The conditions limited his range of motion and the amount of weight he could lift, and he also reported being unable to sit for extended periods of time. Mr. Higdon also suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary artery disease, and was further diagnosed with sleep hypoxia and fatigue, among other conditions.

         An ALJ found that Mr. Higdon had multiple severe impairments, and that he had the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced range of light work. Based on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found that Mr. Higdon was no longer able to perform his past work. However, he also found that Mr. Higdon still had the ability to perform other jobs that existed in significant numbers, including work as a sorter or package inspector. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Mr. Higdon did not qualify as disabled. Mr. Higdon appealed that decision to the Appeals Council, which denied review, so Mr. Higdon filed this action.[1]

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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).

         III. STANDARD FOR DISABILITY

         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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