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Brown v. Berryhill

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

February 22, 2019

ANNA BROWN, Plaintiff,



         This matter was referred to the Magistrate Judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b) for a Report and Recommendation as to its appropriate disposition. (Docket No.12). Plaintiff Anna B.[1] seeks judicial review of the Social Security Administration's final decision deeming her ineligible for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The matter is fully briefed. (Docket No. 11, Docket No. 16, Docket No.17). It is recommended that the District Judge REMAND the decision of the Deputy Commissioner of the Social Security Administration finding that Plaintiff is not disabled, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further consideration, consistent with this opinion.


         Plaintiff, Anna B., protectively filed her applications for Title II and Title XVI on March 7, 2014, and December 4, 2014, for disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning December 16, 2013. (Docket No. 7-5 at ECF p. 2; Docket No. 7-5 at ECF p. 7).

         Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Docket No. 7-4 at ECF p. 4; Docket No. 7-4 at ECF p. 14). Administrative Law Judge Stuart T. Janney (ALJ) held a hearing on September 29, 2016, at which Anna B., represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (VE) Leslie F. Lloyd, appeared and testified. (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF pp. 39-62). After the hearing, on October 4, 2016, the ALJ sent interrogatories to the VE, which were then proffered to Plaintiff's counsel on October 26, 2016. Counsel submitted additional questions to the VE, the response of which were entered on December 7, 2016. (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF p. 11). On February 24, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF p. 8). The Appeals Council denied review on November 21, 2017. (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF p. 2). On December 22, 2017, Anna B. timely filed this civil action, asking the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final decision of the Deputy Commissioner denying her benefits.

         Standard for Proving Disability

         To prove disability, a claimant must show she is 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Plaintiff is disabled if her impairments are of such severity that she is not able to perform the work she previously engaged in and, if based on her age, education, and work experience, she cannot engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The Social Security Administration (SSA) has implemented these statutory standards by, in part, prescribing a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         Step one asks if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if she is, then she is not disabled. Step two asks whether the claimant's impairments, singly or in combination, are severe. If they are not, then she is not disabled. A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). The third step is an analysis of whether the claimant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or medically equal the criteria of any of the conditions in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the Listings). The Listing of Impairments includes medical conditions defined by criteria that the SSA has pre-determined are disabling, so that if a claimant meets all of the criteria for a listed impairment or presents medical findings equal in severity to the criteria for the most similar listed impairment, then the claimant is presumptively disabled and qualifies for benefits. Sims v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 424, 428 (7th Cir. 2002).

         If the claimant's impairments do not satisfy a listing, then her residual functional capacity (RFC) is determined for purposes of steps four and five. RFC is a claimant's ability to do work on a regular and continuing basis despite her impairment-related physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. At the fourth step, if the claimant has the RFC to perform her past relevant work, then she is not disabled. The fifth step asks whether there is work in the relevant economy that the claimant can perform, based on his vocational profile (age, work experience, and education) and her RFC. If so, then she is not disabled.

         The individual claiming disability bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). If the claimant meets that burden, then the Commissioner has the burden at step five to show that work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, given her age, education, work experience, and functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2); Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004).

         Standard for Review of the ALJ's Decision

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's (or ALJ's) factual findings is deferential. This Court must affirm the ALJ's decision unless it lacks the support of substantial evidence or rests upon a legal error. See, e.g., Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence means evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). The ALJ- not the Court-holds discretion to weigh evidence, resolve material conflicts, make independent factual findings, and decide questions of credibility. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 399-400 (1971). Accordingly, the Court may not re-evaluate facts, reweigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for the ALJ's. See Butera v. Apfel, 173 F.3d 1049, 1055 (7th Cir. 1999).

         The ALJ is required to articulate a minimal, but legitimate, justification for his decision to accept or reject specific evidence of a disability. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004). The ALJ need not address every piece of evidence in his decision, but he cannot ignore a line of evidence that undermines the conclusions he made. The ALJ must trace the path of his reasoning and connect the evidence to his findings and conclusions. Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 592 (7th Cir. 2012); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).


         I. The ALJ's Sequential Findings

         Anna B. was 49 years of age at the time she applied for DIB and SSI alleging she could no longer work. (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF p. 21). However, the claimant subsequently changed age category to closely approaching advanced age (20 C.F.R. § 404.1563, 20 C.F.R. § 416.963) prior to the ALJ's decision's issuance. (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF p. 22).

         Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2019 (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF p. 13) and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 16, 2013, the alleged onset date. (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF p. 13).

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a)[2] and ultimately concluded that Anna B. was not disabled. (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF p. 23). The ALJ found that Anna B. met the insured status requirement through December 31, 2019.[3] (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF p. 1). At step one, the ALJ found that Anna B. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity.[4] Id. At step two, the ALJ found that she had the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease; level one obesity; mood disorder; major depressive disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; and personality disorder; not otherwise specified.” (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF p. 14). At step three, the ALJ found that she did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF pp. 14-16). After step three, but before step four, the ALJ concluded:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The claimant can understand, remember, and carry out rote or routine instructions or tasks that require the exercise of little independent judgment or decision ...

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