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Lawson v. Berryhill

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

January 22, 2019

COREY LAWSON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         On September 19, 2017, Plaintiff Corey Lawson filed a complaint in this Court seeking review of the final decision of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for social security disability benefits [DE 1]. The matter is fully briefed and ripe for decision [DE 21-24]. For the reasons stated below, the Court remands this matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. FACTS

         Lawson filed applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) on January 1, 2014, [1] alleging an onset date of May 1, 2013, which was later amended to February 10, 2013-the day that he sustained a work-related back injury. To be entitled to DIB, Lawson must establish disability on or before September 30, 2018. Lawson contends that he is unable to work primarily because he suffers from severe back pain, diabetes, HIV, and depression.

         While Lawson began experiencing moodiness and sadness in 2012, which resulted in his being prescribed Lexapro, he noticed increased depression in August 2013 after being diagnosed with degenerative disk disease. R. at 398, 410-13. On October 28, 2013, Lawson received a medical diagnosis of depression. By March 2014, he was diagnosed as having major depressive disorder (recurrent, moderate severity) and an unspecified anxiety disorder. R. at 385, 435. Continuing into 2016, Lawson complained of experiencing difficulties with his depression and expressed that he was sleeping more often and finding less enjoyment in life. R. at 892.

         As for Lawson's back pain, an x-ray taken shortly after his work-related incident demonstrated advanced moderate to severe intervertebral disc space narrowing at ¶ 5-S1, with anterior osteophytic spur formation and facet joint sclerosis, particularly at ¶ 5-S1 and secondarily at ¶ 4-5. R. at 355. In August 2015, another x-ray demonstrated mild to moderate L5-S1 degenerative disc disease. R. at 1054. As of 2016, Lawson continued to complain of chronic back pain despite taking pain medication, undergoing spinal injections, and participating in physical therapy. R. at 813-52, 1019-67.

         Lawson's applications were denied initially in April 2014, and on reconsideration in August 2014. On April 12, 2016, Lawson and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified during a hearing held before Administrative Law Judge Daniel Mages (“ALJ”). Lawson explained that his daily activities varied based on the level of his back pain, and that when it rains he is typically bedridden. Lawson testified that he only cooks simple microwavable meals because he cannot stand for any longer. For Lawson, shopping requires too much walking, showering requires too much standing, and vacuuming requires too much pushing. The last time Lawson tried mowing the lawn, he only lasted for ten minutes. He can no longer play sports. When his back hurts, he needs to stretch or lay down for ten to thirty minutes. Lawson's depression causes him to stay in bed, and he doesn't think his prescription for Cymbalta is helping.

         The VE's testimony was based strictly on the (relevant) hypothetical posed to him, which offered an assigned residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] of sedentary work, limited by occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and climbing of ramps and stairs, no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, no work around dangerous moving machinery or unprotected heights, frequent fingering, handling, and feeling bilaterally, and involving only simple, routine tasks with the ability to attend, concentrate, and persist for two hours at a time. Per the VE, with this RFC Lawson would not be able to perform his past work, but he could perform unskilled work as a call out operator, order clerk, and telephone quotation clerk.

         The ALJ issued a decision on July 16, 2016, denying Lawson disability benefits and concluding that Lawson was not disabled under the Social Security Act because he was able to perform other work in the national economy. The Appeals Council then denied Lawson's request for review which made the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). Lawson seeks review of the Commissioner's decision, thereby invoking this Court's jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).


         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).

         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 the ALJ's findings. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 888 (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. Ultimately, 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).


         Disability and supplemental insurance 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 ...

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