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Green v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

November 29, 2018



          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Holly Denise Green appeals to the district court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying her application under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”).[1] For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 18, 2013, Green filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of December 4, 2012. (DE 15 Administrative Record (“AR”) 8, 261-62). Green's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 160-63, 166-74). At Green's request, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Terry Miller (the “ALJ”) on February 24, 2015. (AR 34-42, 174-84). However, the ALJ continued the hearing, and it was completed on May 19, 2015. (AR 76-134). At the hearing, Green, who was represented by an attorney, and vocational expert Robert Barkhaus testified. (AR 76). On July 31, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Green was not disabled. (AR 5-26). Green requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision (AR 32-33), and the Appeals Council denied her request, making the ALJ's decision the final, appealable decision of the Commissioner (AR 1-4).

         Green filed a complaint with this Court on July 27, 2017, seeking relief from the Commissioner's final decision. (DE 1). In her appeal, Green alleges that the ALJ: (1) erred in his adverse credibility finding concerning her symptom testimony; (2) improperly rejected the opinion of state agency psychologist Dan Boen, PH.D., in determining Green's residual functional capacity (“RFC”); and (3) failed to support Green's mental RFC with substantial evidence. (DE 23 at 5-15).


         Under the Act, a claimant is entitled to DIB if she establishes an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to . . . last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1), 423(d)(1)(A). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).

         In determining whether Green is disabled as defined by the Act, the ALJ conducted the familiar five-step analytical process, which required him to consider the following issues in sequence: (1) whether the claimant is currently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the Commissioner, see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1; (4) whether the claimant is unable to perform her past work; and (5) whether the claimant is incapable of performing work in the national economy.[2] See Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. An affirmative answer leads either to the next step or, on steps three and five, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001). A negative answer at any point other than step three stops the inquiry and leads to a finding that the claimant is not disabled. Id. The burden of proof lies with the claimant at every step except the fifth, where it shifts to the Commissioner. Id. at 885-86.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Green had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of December 4, 2012. (AR 10). At step two, the ALJ found that Green had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia; history of bilateral knee pain due to osteoarthritis and a meniscal tear requiring arthroscopic repair surgery; neck (and related headache) pain and low back pain due to cervical and lumber degenerative arthritis; rosacea/rash; obesity; depression; and anxiety. (AR 10-11).

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Green did not have an impairment or combination of impairments severe enough to meet or equal a listing. (AR 11-13). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that Green's symptom testimony was “not entirely credible” (AR 16), and assigned her the following RFC:

[T]he claimant has the [RFC] to perform sedentary work . . . (i.e. she can lift/carry/push/pull up to 10 pounds; sit at least 6 hours out of an 8[-]hour workday; and, can stand/walk, in combination, at least 2 hours out of an 8[-]hour workday). However, she has the following additional limitations: she needs a sit/stand option (which allows for alternating between sitting and standing up to every 30 minutes, if needed, but the positional change will not render the individual off task); only occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, balancing, stopping, kneeling, and crouching, but never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and never crawling. In addition, she needs to avoid concentrated exposure to hazards (i.e. operational control of dangerous moving machinery, unprotected heights, slippery/uneven/moving surfaces), and needs to work in an indoor, temperature[-]controlled environment. Mentally, [she] cannot understand or carry out detailed or complex job instructions, but can perform simple, repetitive tasks on a sustained basis (meaning 8 hours a day/5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule), no sudden or unpredictable workplace changes; cannot perform tasks requiring intense/focused attention for prolonged periods; and needs work at a flexible pace (where the employee is allowed some independence in determining either the timing of different work activities, or pace of work).

(AR 13). Based on this RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Green could not perform her past relevant work. (AR 20). The ALJ considered the testimony of the vocational expert and other evidence in the record and determined at step five that Green could perform other jobs in the national economy that exist in significant numbers, and therefore, her application for DIB was denied. (AR 20-21).


         Section 405(g) of the Act grants this Court “the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court's task is limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, which means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). The decision will be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ applied an erroneous legal standard. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000).

         To determine if substantial evidence exists, the Court reviews the entire administrative record but does not re-weigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Id. Rather, if the findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. Id. Nonetheless, “substantial evidence” review should not be a simple rubber-stamp of the Commissioner's decision. Id. (citing Ehrhart v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 969 F.2d 534, 538 (7th Cir. 1992)).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. The ALJ Provided Adequate Reasons for Rejecting ...

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