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Bell v. Berryhill

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

February 5, 2019

TAMARA BELL, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         On 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.

         I. FACTS

         Bell 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 depression/anxiety.

         More 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).

         On 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. 568).

         In 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).

         In 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.

         Despite 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.

         The VE's testimony was based strictly on the (relevant) hypothetical posed to him, which offered an assigned residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[1] 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 performed.

         The ALJ 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).


         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, ...

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