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Michelle M. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

December 7, 2018

MICHELLE M., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ENTRY REVIEWING THE DEPUTY COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          Hon. Jane Magnus-Stinson, Chief Judge

         Plaintiff Michelle M. applied for supplemental security income from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) on January 27, 2014, alleging an onset date of December 8, 2012. [Filing No. 7-2 at 18.] Her application was initially denied on May 27, 2014, [Filing No. 7-4 at 2], and upon reconsideration on December 12, 2014, [Filing No. 7-4 at 13]. Administrative Law Judge Dennis Lyndell Pickett (the “ALJ”) held a hearing on August 4, 2016. [Filing No. 7-2 at 36-55.] The ALJ issued a decision on September 27, 2016, concluding that Michelle M. was not entitled to receive supplemental security income. [Filing No. 7-2 at 15.] The Appeals Council denied review on February 23, 2018. [Filing No. 7-2 at 2.] On April 17, 2018, Michelle M. timely filed this civil action asking the Court to review the denial of benefits according to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c). [Filing No. 1.]

         I. Standard of Review

         “The Social Security Act authorizes payment of disability insurance benefits … to individuals with disabilities.” Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214 (2002). “The statutory definition of ‘disability' has two parts. First, it requires a certain kind of inability, namely, an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. Second, it requires an impairment, namely, a physical or mental impairment, which provides reason for the inability. The statute adds that the impairment must be one that has lasted or can be expected to last … not less than 12 months.” Id. at 217.

         When an applicant appeals an adverse benefits decision, this Court's role is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). Because the ALJ “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008), this Court must accord the ALJ's credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong.” Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

         The ALJ must apply the five-step inquiry set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v), evaluating the following, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently [un]employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the [Deputy Commissioner]; (4) whether the claimant can perform her past work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.

Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted) (alterations in original). “If a claimant satisfies steps one, two, and three, she will automatically be found disabled. If a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then she must satisfy step four. Once step four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.” Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).

         After Step Three, but before Step Four, the ALJ must determine a claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) by evaluating “all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009). In doing so, the ALJ “may not dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling.” Id. The ALJ uses the RFC at Step Four to determine whether the claimant can perform her own past relevant work and if not, at Step Five to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e), (g). The burden of proof is on the claimant for Steps One through Four; only at Step Five does the burden shift to the Deputy Commissioner. See Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

         If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits “is appropriate where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).

         II. Background

         Michelle M. was 43 years of age at the time she applied for supplemental security income. [Filing No. 7-5 at 2.] She has completed at least a high school education and does not have any past relevant work. [Filing No. 7-2 at 26.][2]

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the Social Security Administration in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) and ultimately concluded that Michelle M. was not disabled. [Filing No. 7-2 at 28.] Specifically, the ALJ found as follows:

• At Step One, Michelle M. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity[3] since January 27, 2014, the application date.[4] [Filing No. 7-2 at 20.]
• At Step Two, she had the following severe impairments: “cerebral trauma, affective disorder, attention deficit disorder, anxiety, obesity, and seizures.” [Filin ...

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