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Erich R. R. v. Berryhill

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

January 22, 2019

ERICH R. R., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff seeks remand of the Administrative Law Judge's decision denying her disability benefits. Plaintiff's appeal rests on two arguments: 1) the ALJ failed to articulate his application of Social Security Ruling 16-3p, which concerns how ALJs evaluate statements regarding a claimant's symptoms, and 2) the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician under SSR 96-2p, which requires the ALJ to give deference to a treating physician's opinion. The Deputy Commissioner responds that the ALJ adequately supported his determination that Plaintiff's symptoms were not as severe as he claimed, and the ALJ adequately explained his reasoning for giving greater weight to the examining physician over the treating physician. Though it is true the ALJ did not explicitly walk through the factors of either ruling factor-by-factor, Plaintiff fails to show the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, Plaintiff's request for remand [Filing No. 12] should be denied.

         II. Background

         Plaintiff sought disability insurance benefits alleging disability beginning on April 1, 2012. The Social Security Administration denied his request initially and again upon reconsideration. Following a hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff now asks the Court to remand the decision to the ALJ for reconsideration.

         The ALJ followed the SSA's five-step process for evaluating disability claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) (explaining the five-step process). At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had four severe impairments: low back pain, a history of ascending aortic aneurysm, moderate depressive disorder, and a history of alcohol use disorder. At step three, the ALJ determined that none of the severe impairments met or medically equaled any of the impairment listings in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, sub pt. P, app'x 1. Before moving on to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity:

[Plaintiff] had the [RFC] to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R [§] 404.1567(a) except: He is able to lift, carry, push or pull ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently. He is able to sit for six hours during a typical eight-hour workday with normal work breaks. He is able to stand for fifteen to thirty minutes at one time and for two hours in a normal workday. He is able to walk for fifteen to twenty minutes at one time and for two hours in a normal workday. He is not able to climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, but he is able to climb ramps or stairs occasionally. He is able to balance, stoop, crouch, kneel or crawl occasionally. He is able to reach frequently, but not constantly. He must avoid exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights or dangerous moving machinery. He must avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants such as fumes, smoke, gases and the like.

[Filing No. 7-2, at ECF pp. 39-40, R. at 38-39 (internal footnote omitted).]

         At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not able to perform past relevant work as either a bartender or as an optician. However, at step five, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff was a younger individual (between age 45 and 49) on the onset date, had at least a high school education, and could communicate in English. Based on these factors and Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Thus, the ALJ decided Plaintiff was not disabled.

         III. Discussion

         The Court reviews the ALJ's decision to ensure it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Summers v. Berryhill, 864 F.3d 523, 526 (7th Cir. 2017). However, an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence if the Court cannot follow the ALJ's reasoning from the facts to the conclusion. Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 362 (7th Cir. 2013). The Court reads the ALJ's decision as a whole, giving it “a commonsensical reading rather than nitpicking it.” Castle v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 929 (7th Cir. 2010).

         a. Social Security Ruling 16-3p

         Plaintiff first argues the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to comply with SSR 16-3p, which “provides guidance about how [ALJs] evaluate statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of symptoms in disability claims.” In seeking disability benefits, Plaintiff testified that his degenerative disc disease and tachycardia cause disabling symptoms. Plaintiff contends the decision provides little application of SSR 16-3p and fails to provide an acceptable discussion of the evidence. [Filing No. 12, at ECF p. 20.] Plaintiff further claims the ALJ erroneously relied solely on objective medical evidence to discredit Plaintiff's alleged symptoms. The Deputy Commissioner responds that, while the ALJ focused on the extensive medical evidence that contradicted Plaintiff's claims, the ALJ also addressed other evidence and the relevant factors.

         In evaluating a claimant's symptoms, ALJs are to “examine the entire case record, including the objective medical evidence; an individual's statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of symptoms; statements and other information provided by medical sources and other persons; and any other relevant evidence in the individual's case record.” SSR 16-3p (emphasis added). Under SSR 16-3p, ALJs no longer assess claimants' credibility, but “continue to assess the credibility of pain assertions by applicants, especially as such assertions often cannot be either credited or rejected on the basis of medical evidence.” Cole v. Colvin,831 F.3d 411, 412 (7th Cir. 2016) (emphasis in original). When evaluating those assertions, ALJs consider (1) the claimant's daily activities, (2) the location, duration, frequency, and intensity of pain or other symptoms, (3) factors that precipitate and aggravate symptoms, (4) the type, dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of any medication the claimant takes or has taken to alleviate pain or other symptoms, (5) treatment, other than medication, the claimant receives or has received for relief of pain or other symptoms, (6) any measures other than treatment the claimant uses or has used to relieve pain or other symptoms, and (7) any other ...

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