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Londa T. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Terre Haute Division

March 6, 2019

LONDA T., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ENTRY REVIEWING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          JAMES R. SWEENEY II, JUDGE

         Plaintiff Londa T. (“Ms. T.”) applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) on October 10, 2014, alleging an onset date of June 27, 2014. [ECF No. 10-2 at 63.] Her application was initially denied on November 25, 2014, [ECF No. 10-5 at 2], and upon reconsideration on February 17, 2015 [ECF No. 10-2 at 63]. Administrative Law Judge Kevin R. Martin (the “ALJ”) held a hearing on September 27, 2016. [ECF No. 10-3 at 4-33.] The ALJ issued a decision on December 14, 2016, concluding that Ms. T. was not entitled to receive DIB. [ECF No. 10-2 at 60.] The Appeals Council denied review on May 5, 2017. [ECF No. 10-2 at 2.] On July 5, 2017, Ms. T. timely filed this civil action asking the Court to review the denial of benefits according to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c). [ECF No. 1.]

         I.

         Standard of Review

          “The Social Security Act authorizes payment of disability insurance benefits … to individuals with disabilities.” Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214 (2002). “The statutory definition of ‘disability' has two parts. First, it requires a certain kind of inability, namely, an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. Second, it requires an impairment, namely, a physical or mental impairment, which provides reason for the inability. The statute adds that the impairment must be one that has lasted or can be expected to last … not less than 12 months.” Id. at 217.

         When an applicant appeals an adverse benefits decision, this Court's role is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstan-tial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). Because the ALJ “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008), this Court must accord the ALJ's credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong.” Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

         The ALJ must apply the five-step inquiry set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), evaluating the following, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently [un]employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the [Commissioner]; (4) whether the claimant can perform her past work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.

Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted) (alterations in original). “If a claimant satisfies steps one, two, and three, she will automatically be found disabled. If a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then she must satisfy step four. Once step four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.” Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).

         After Step Three, but before Step Four, the ALJ must determine a claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) by evaluating “all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009). In doing so, the ALJ “may not dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling.” Id. The ALJ uses the RFC at Step Four to determine whether the claimant can perform her own past relevant work and if not, at Step Five to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(iv), (v). The burden of proof is on the claimant for Steps One through Four; only at Step Five does the burden shift to the Commissioner. See Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

         If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits “is appropriate only where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).

         II.

         Background

          Ms. T. was 57 years of age at the time she applied for DIB. [ECF No. 10-6 at 2.] She has completed at least four years of college and previously worked as a nurse supervisor. [ECF No. 10-7 at 17-18.][2]

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) and ultimately concluded that Ms. T. was not disabled. [ECF No. 10-2 at 75.] Specifically, the ALJ found as follows:

• At Step One, Ms. T. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity[3] since June 27, 2014, the alleged onset date. [ECF No. 10-2 at 65.]
• At Step Two, she had the following severe impairments: “migraine headaches, major depressive disorder with panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) ...

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