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Michael M. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, New Albany Division

February 22, 2019

MICHAEL M., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON COMPLAINT FOR JUDICIAL REVIEW

          Debra McVicker Lynch United States Magistrate Judge

         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. As addressed below, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the District Judge REVERSE and REMAND the decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) that plaintiff Michael M. is not disabled.

         Introduction

         Plaintiff Michael M. applied in January 2007 for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income benefits based on disability under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act, alleging he has been disabled since September 1, 2002. A final agency decision that he was not disabled was reversed and remanded after judicial review. The Appeals Council thereafter issued an order dated April 6, 2012, vacating the prior decision and directing an ALJ to hold a new hearing, take any further action to complete the record, and issue a new decision. (R. 501). A new hearing was then held in 2012 before a different ALJ (Robert Flynn) who issued a partially favorable decision on January 16, 2013, finding that Michael had become disabled as of November 21, 2009. The Appeals Council remanded this second decision for further consideration with respect to the pre-November 2009 period only; it did not disturb the finding of disability as of November 21, 2009. (R. 526).

         Another new hearing was held in February 2016. ALJ Flynn then issued a decision on April 16, 2016, reaffirming that Michael became disabled on November 21, 2009, when his age category under the grids changed to an “individual closely approaching advanced age, ” but also finding that before the change in age category, Michael was capable of performing the requirements of other jobs available in significant numbers in the relevant economy.[2] On August 18, 2017, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's April 2016 decision, rendering it the final decision of the Commissioner. Michael timely filed this civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the Commissioner's decision.

         Michael argues that the Commissioner's decision that he was not disabled before November 2009 must be reversed and remanded because the ALJ did not properly evaluate the findings and opinions of three doctors and because the ALJ's negative credibility determination is patently wrong.

         The court will first describe the legal framework for analyzing disability claims and the court's standard of review and then address Michael's specific assertions of error.

         Standard for Proving Disability

         To prove disability, a claimant must show he 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. § 423(d)(1)(A). Michael is disabled if his impairments are of such severity that he is not able to perform the work he previously engaged in and, if based on his age, education, and work experience, he cannot engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The Social Security Administration 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 he is, then he is not disabled. Step two asks whether the claimant's impairments, singly or in combination, are severe; if they are not, then he 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 equal the criteria of any of the conditions in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The Listing of Impairments includes medical conditions defined by criteria that the SSA has predetermined 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 a listed impairment, then the claimant is presumptively disabled and qualifies for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

         If the claimant's impairments do not satisfy a listing, then his 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 his impairment-related physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. At the fourth step, if the claimant has the RFC to perform his past relevant work, then he 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 RFC; if so, then he is not disabled.

         The claimant 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 his vocational profile 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. A court must affirm if no error of law occurred and if the findings are supported by substantial evidence. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7thCir. 2001). Substantial evidence means evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id. The standard demands more than a scintilla of evidentiary support, but it does not demand a preponderance of the evidence. Wood v. Thompson, 246 F.3d 1026, 1029 (7th Cir. 2001).

         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, and he must trace the path of his reasoning and connect the evidence to his findings and conclusions. Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 592 (7thCir. 2012); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).

         Analysis

         I. The ALJ's ...


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