United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
OPINION AND ORDER
October 24, 2017, Plaintiff Tamara Bell filed a complaint in
this Court seeking review of the final decision of the
Defendant Commissioner of Social Security denying her
application for social security disability benefits [DE 1].
The matter is briefed and ripe for decision [DE 15; DE 16].
For the reasons stated below, the Court remands this matter
to the Commissioner for further proceedings.
filed an application for supplemental security income on
April 4, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of May 19,
2013-when Bell started experiencing chest pain, shortness of
breath, and fatigue. Bell contends that she is unable to work
primarily because she suffers from a heart condition, sleep
disorder, obesity, bilateral knee osteoarthritis, and
specifically, on June 19, 2013, an echocardiogram revealed
that Bell suffered from severe asymmetric left ventricular
hypertrophy (Tr. 375-77). Thereafter, Bell continued to
complain of chest discomfort, shortness of breath, and
fatigue. Further diagnostics confirmed that she was suffering
from hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy (Tr. 102-03).
August 30, 2013, Bell presented with complaints of insomnia
that had been ongoing for about one month, and she was also
experiencing anxiety, apneic episodes, daytime somnolence,
fatigue, lethargy, nightmares, nocturia, and snoring (Tr.
472). Bell was prescribed amitriptyline to help her sleep
(Tr. 474). At a follow-up appointment in January 2014, Bell
had some mild improvement in her insomnia with the change in
her cardiac medication, but it was suspected that she
suffered from sleep apnea (Tr. 444). Bell completed a sleep
study on March 25, 2014, which resulted in a “markedly
abnormal polysomnography study” consistent with
obstructive sleep apnea-hypopnea syndrome (Tr. 322). On April
23, 2014, a CPAP machine was ordered for her sleep apnea (Tr.
2014, Bell reported experiencing bilateral knee problems (Tr.
515). Bell underwent cortisone injections but continued to
suffer from knee pain. In November 2014, she underwent a
total knee arthroplasty on the right side (Tr. 704). Despite
this, in January 2015, she had to undergo a right knee
manipulation while under anesthesia (Tr. 700). In May 2015,
Bell underwent a total knee arthroplasty on the left side
(Tr. 688). Following these procedures, Bell was reportedly
“doing well” (Tr. 689), but her subsequent
medical records documented her as having a “lack of
endurance when walking (knee pain).” (Tr. 724-61).
2014, Bell began seeing a mental health therapist for ongoing
depression (despite already taking an antidepressant) (Tr.
673-78). Bell reported being irritable, lacking energy, and
suffering from memory issues. She also complained about her
knee pain and heart obstruction, which required her to be
careful with exercise. Bell attended therapy to work on her
mood and anxiety with respect to weight loss.
this medical history, Bell's application was denied
initially in June 2014, and on reconsideration in September
2014. On January 5, 2017, Bell and a vocational expert
(“VE”) testified during a hearing held before
Administrative Law Judge Michelle Whetsel
(“ALJ”). Bell explained that her daily activities
varied based on how well she slept the night before. Bell
testified that she is active in the morning but must nap
every afternoon due to being short of breath and experiencing
fatigue. Bell can only perform housework for about half an
hour before she must sit down and rest for fifteen minutes.
And although Bell estimated that she could lift twenty-five
pounds, she could do so only a few times because repetitive
arm movements wore her out quickly. Bell indicated that she
could not squat or take baths because she could not fully
bend her knees. In fact, she still experiences some knee
pain. Bell testified that her most recent extensive cardiac
testing in Indianapolis revealed that she must have heart
surgery to fix a faulty valve, otherwise the specialist
warned her that she could suddenly die from heart failure. As
for her mental health, Bell explained that despite taking an
antidepressant, she needed therapy to help with her
depression and anger; however, Bell was without sufficient
insurance to continue such treatment.
VE's testimony was based strictly on the (relevant)
hypothetical posed to him, which offered an assigned residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) of light work,
limited by occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling,
crouching, crawling, and climbing of ramps and stairs, no
climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and avoidance of
concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat,
humidity, fumes, gases, dusts, odors, and poor ventilation.
Per the VE, with this RFC, Bell was able to perform her past
work as a security guard, both as actually and generally
issued a decision on February 10, 2017, denying Bell
disability benefits and concluding that Bell was not disabled
under the Social Security Act because she was able to perform
her past work. The Appeals Council then denied Bell'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). Bell seeks
review of the Commissioner's decision, thereby invoking
this Court's jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§
405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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
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, ...