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Prilaman v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 8, 2019

COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Kylie Anne Prilaman 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”) and supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”).[1] For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On March 17, 2009, Prilaman filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of April 1, 2001. (DE 11 Administrative Record (“AR”) 20, 149-50, 156-58, 456). Prilaman's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 74-81, 83-88). At Prilaman's request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge on July 28, 2010. (AR 20, 33-69). The Administrative Law Judge rendered an unfavorable decision (AR 17-32), which eventually became the final, reviewable decision of the Commissioner (AR 1-16, 272).

         On June 13, 2012, Prilaman timely filed a complaint in this Court, appealing the decision of the Commissioner. (See 1:12-cv-00191-RBC, DE 1). On April 1, 2013, the parties filed a joint motion to remand Prilaman's appeal to the Commissioner, stating:

On remand, the [Administrative Law Judge] will reevaluate Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, providing an appropriate rationale for his determination, which will include explaining the weight given to all medical opinions of record, especially [F. Kladder, Ph.D.'s] and [Karen Lothamer C.N.S.'s], following the requirements of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527 and SSR 06-03p. The [Administrative Law Judge] will offer Plaintiff the opportunity for a new hearing and receive additional evidence. After reevaluating the evidence, the [Administrative Law Judge] will issue a new decision regarding Plaintiff's disability application.

(1:12-cv-00191-RBC, DE 23; see also AR 669). On April 2, 2013, the Court granted the parties' joint motion for a remand. (1:12-cv-00191-RBC, DE 24; see also AR 668). Additionally, in or around July 2012, Prilaman filed an application for SSI and a new application for DIB, which were also denied initially and upon consideration. (AR 456, 727-44, 746-59, 844-45, 851-56).

         In November 2013, the Appeals Council remanded Prilaman's 2012 applications for SSI and DIB and consolidated those claims with the claims in Prilaman's initial appeal that were remanded by this Court. (AR 456, 667-81). On July 26, 2014, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge William Pierson (the “ALJ”). (AR 544-93). At the hearing, Prilaman, who was represented by counsel, testified, as did vocational expert Marie Kieffer (the “VE”). (AR 544).

         On October 8, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Prilaman was not disabled. (AR 453-73). Prilaman requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision, and the Appeals Council denied her request, making the ALJ's decision the final, appealable decision of the Commissioner. (AR 446-52).

         Prilaman filed the complaint in this action on December 21, 2017, seeking relief from the Commissioner's final decision. (DE 1). In her appeal, Prilaman alleges that the ALJ: (1) erred in crafting the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) by discrediting Ms. Lothamer's assessments of Prilaman's mental limitations in June 2010 and June 2014; and (2) did not incorporate Prilaman's moderate limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace in his hypothetical to the VE. (DE 20 at 15-24).


         Under the Act, a claimant is entitled to DIB or SSI 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), 1382c(a)(3)(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), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         In determining whether Prilaman 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 or combination of impairments meets or equals one of the Commissioner's listings, 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, 416.920. 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 Prilaman had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. (AR 458-59). At step two, the ALJ found that Prilaman had the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder recurrent, and post-traumatic stress disorder. (AR 459-60).

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Prilaman did not have an impairment or combination of impairments severe enough to meet or equal a listing. (AR 460-61). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that Prilaman's symptom testimony was “not entirely credible” (AR 462), and assigned her the following RFC:

[T]he claimant has the [RFC] to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: She is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks. She can maintain the concentration required to perform simple tasks, and can remember simple work-like procedures. She is limited to low-stress work (defined as requiring only occasional decision making and only occasional changes in the work setting); she can tolerate predictable changes in the work environment. She is limited to superficial interaction with coworkers, supervisors and the public (with superficial interaction defined as occasional and casual contact, not involving prolonged conversations; contact with supervisors would still involve necessary instruction and prolonged conversations with coworkers must not be necessary to task completion[)]; the claimant is best in an environment that does not involve tandem, shoulder-to-shoulder work activity. She is limited to basic reading such as address labels and lists.

(AR 461-62). Based on this RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Prilaman could not perform her past relevant work. (AR 471). The ALJ considered the testimony of the VE and other evidence in the record and determined at step five that Prilaman could perform other jobs in the national economy that exist in significant numbers, and therefore, her applications for DIB and SSI were denied. (AR 471-73).


         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. Ms. Lothamer's Assessments

         First, Prilaman contends the RFC determination is flawed because the ALJ did not provide good reasons for discounting Ms. Lothamer's assessment of Prilaman's limitations in June 2010 and June 2014. For the reasons stated below, Prilaman's argument fails.

         The RFC is “the individual's maximum remaining ability to do sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis, ” meaning eight hours a day, for five days a week. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *2 (July 2, 1996); see Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000-02 (7th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1) (“Your [RFC] is the most you can still do despite your limitations.”). The RFC assessment “is based upon consideration of all relevant evidence in the case record, including medical evidence . . . .” SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *5 (July 2, 1996); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has stated that “more weight is generally given to the opinion of a treating physician because of his greater familiarity with the claimant's conditions and circumstances.” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 870 (citations omitted); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2). Each medical opinion, other than a treating physician's opinion, must be evaluated pursuant to factors articulated in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c) and 416.927(c) to determine the proper weight to apply to it. See White v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 654, 658-60 (7th Cir. 2005). One factor the ALJ may consider is the extent to which an opinion is supported by the record. Long v. Comm'r Soc. Sec., No. 2:15-CV-408-JEM, 2017 WL 1161012, at *3 (N.D. Ind. Mar. 28, 2017) (quoting SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *3, 5).

         In September 2005, Prilaman submitted to examination at Park Center. (AR 293-95). Records describe Prilaman as “pleasant and cooperative, but clearly depressed . . . . Speech [was] clear and goal directed. She [was] oriented to person, place, and time, ” although she admitted to “overwhelming suicidal ideation.” (AR 295). There was no evidence of disturbances in her thought process or thought content. (AR 295).

         Prilaman was seen at Park Center again in April 2009. (AR 276-83). She presented as depressed, anxious, angry, and with poor judgment. (AR 279). However, there was “no evidence of thought disturbance” and her “thought content and processes [were] within normal range.” (AR 279). She was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder, recurrent unspecified, and cannabis dependence, and she was assigned a Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score of 53.[3] (AR 281).

         In October 2009, Prilaman submitted to examination by Kenneth Bundza, Ph.D. (AR 349-52). Dr. Bundza conducted a series of tests and found that Prilaman demonstrated “adequate” verbal and compression skills; she was “alert and oriented in all spheres;” her long-term and immediate memory were intact; she was able to deal with basic mental arithmetic tasks involving more than one function; and she possessed adequate common sense, although her abstract thinking was somewhat compromised. (AR 350-51). Dr. Bundza concluded that “[t]he results of this Mental Status Examination do not indicate the ...

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