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Hicks v. Berryhill

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

January 23, 2019

SUSAN M. HICKS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN CHIEF JUDGE

         Plaintiff Susan M. Hicks seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. The Plaintiff claims that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) failed to incorporate the Plaintiff's limitations in her concentration, persistence, and pace into the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC), and consequently, the hypothetical to the Vocational Expert (VE) that derives from the RFC. The Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ incorrectly analyzed whether she has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that meets the severity of one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1 of the relevant CFR.

         For the reasons stated in this Opinion and Order, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, and that there is no basis to remand for further review.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         On September 19, 2014, the Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act and supplemental security income. (R. at 15, ECF No. 12.) She alleged disability beginning on June 1, 2011. (Id.) After her claim was denied initially, as well as upon reconsideration, the Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. (Id.) The Plaintiff, who was represented by an attorney, participated in a hearing before the ALJ. (Id.) On March 6, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision, applying the five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). (Id. at 16.)

         Disability is defined as the “inability 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). To be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work, but also any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. The first step is to determine whether the claimant no longer engages in substantial gainful activity (SGA). Id. In the case at hand, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA) since June 1, 2011, the alleged onset date. (R. at 17.) In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting the ability to do basic work activities pursuant to § 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c). Here, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments, including cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease, sacroiliitis, mild joint space narrowing and osteophyte formation of the right distal IP joints/tenosynovitis, bilateral calcaneal spurring, headaches, obesity, depression, and anxiety were severe impairments because they significantly limited her ability to perform basic work activities. (R. at 17) The ALJ did not find that the Plaintiff's Crohn's disease, recurrent hernia, edema, anemia, left knee pain, and rheumatoid arthritis were severe impairments that significantly limited her physical ability to do basic work activities. (R. at 18-20.)

         Step three requires the ALJ to “consider the medical severity of [the] impairment” to determine whether the impairment “meets or equals one of [the] listings in appendix 1 . . . .” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant's impairment(s), considered singly or in combination with other impairments, rises to this level, she earns a presumption of disability “without considering her age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(d); § 416.920(d). But, if the impairment(s), either singly or in combination, falls short, an ALJ must move to step four and examine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (RFC)-the types of things she can still do physically, despite her limitations-to determine whether she can perform this “past relevant work, ” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) and § 416.920(a)(4)(iv), or whether the claimant can “make an adjustment to other work” given the claimant's “age, education, and work experience, ” § 404.1520(a)(4)(v) and § 416.920(a)(4)(v). In the instant case, upon review of the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, do not meet or equal any of the listings in Appendix 1 (R. at 20), and that the Plaintiff has the RFC to perform sedentary work, as defined by § 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a),

except: the claimant is limited to lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling ten pounds frequently and occasionally throughout the work day. The claimant can sit at least six hours in an eight-hour workday and stand and/or walk two hours in an eight-hour workday. The claimant should not climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant can occasionally balance. The claimant can occasionally bend and stoop in addition to what is required to sit. The claimant can occasionally use ramps and stairs. Aside from use of ramps and stairs on an occasional basis, the claimant should not work upon uneven surfaces. The claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to wetness, such as when working upon wet and slippery surfaces. The claimant should avoid work within close proximity to open and exposed heights and open and dangerous machinery, such as open flames and fast moving exposed blades. The claimant should avoid work involving concentrated exposure to vibration, such as using heavy sanders. The claimant is limited to frequent, not constant, fingering, feeling, gripping, and fine manipulation of small objects, such as a pen or paper clip. The claimant is limited to frequent, not constant, gross manipulation and handling, grasping, turning, and gripping of larger objects. The claimant is limited to superficial interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the public, which superficial interaction defined as occasional and casual contact not involving prolonged conversation. Contact with supervisors still involves necessary instruction. Prolonged conversation is not necessary for task completion. The claimant is limited to work that involves only simple, routine, and repetitive tasks that can be learned through short demonstration and up to 30 days. The claimant can maintain the concentration required to perform simple tasks. The claimant can remember simple work-like procedures. The claimant can make simple work-related decisions. The claimant can maintain the concentration and attention as well as the persistence to perform such duties on a day-in and day-out basis, for eight hours per day, five days per week, or within some other form of full time competitive work environment.

(R. at 22-23.)

         At the final step of the evaluation, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff was not disabled because the Plaintiff could work as an address clerk, document preparer, surveillance monitor, and table worker/inspector, all of which exist in significant numbers in the economy. (R. at 32.)

         The Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. (R. at 1.) The Appeals Council subsequently denied review (R. at 1), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Liskowitz v. Astrue, 559 F.3d 736, 739 (7th Cir. 2009). The Plaintiff now seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A claimant is disabled only if she shows an inability 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). She has the burden of proving disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A). She must establish that her physical or mental impairments “are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do h[er] previous work but cannot, considering h[er] age, ...


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