United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
OPINION AND ORDER
January 16, 2018, Plaintiff Mary Stone 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 fully briefed and ripe for decision [DEs
14-16]. For the reasons stated below, the Court remands this
matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings.
filed applications for disability insurance benefits
(“DIB”) and supplemental security income
(“SSI”) in April 2014, alleging an onset date of
September 30, 2012. Stone contends that she is unable to work
primarily because she suffers from degenerative disc disease
of her entire spine, obesity, carpal tunnel syndrome
(“CTS”), headaches, and depression/anxiety. By
the age of thirty-one, Stone quit several waitressing jobs
because her severe back and hand pain required her to get
help from coworkers or call-off sick, and oftentimes, she
went home crying in pain.
respect to Stone's bilateral hand problems, she had
surgery for CTS in 2007. By late 2011, she was again
experiencing numbness and tingling in her hands. On November
30, 2012, a physical exam revealed a positive Phalen's
test and she was again diagnosed with CTS (R. at 529-30). On
March 17, 2016, Stone underwent a bilateral median nerve
block at the wrists (R. at 821-24) and she has continued to
seek treatment for her hand problems (R. at 411, 544, 802,
811, 840, 893, 981).
Stone's back problems, an MRI of Stone's lumbar spine
on May 31, 2013, revealed a right-sided focal paracentral
disc protrusion at ¶ 5-S1, a slight displacing of the S1
nerve root, a tiny left paracentral disc protrusion at ¶
4-5, and mild bilateral facet arthropathy at ¶ 4-5 and
L5-S1 (R. at 396). Later that year, she reported having
progressive back pain with radiation to her hips for several
years (R. at 411). Despite taking strong pain medicine,
wearing a TENS unit, and undergoing epidural steroid
injections, physical therapy, and chiropractic manipulations,
Stone's back and neck pain persisted. Stone underwent
back surgery in April 2016, after an MRI of her thoracic
spine revealed a large disc herniation at ¶ 9-T10 (R. at
549, 592). Despite surgery, Stone continued to suffer from an
extruded lumbar disc at the L5-S1 and L4-5, along with
cervical disc problems (R. at 550). Stone's surgeon
opined that she would not be able to return to work due to
her need to recuperate and undergo further surgeries (R. at
948, 962, 979-90). Meanwhile, Stone has also suffered from
chronic headaches and some anxiety/depression for which she
tried counseling and taking an antidepressant (R. at 484-85,
596, 628-30, 664-67, 679-81, 694-96).
this medical history, Stone's applications were denied
initially in September 2014, and on reconsideration in
November 2014. On November 15, 2016, Stone and a vocational
expert (“VE”) testified during a hearing held
before Administrative Law Judge Shane McGovern
(“ALJ”) (R. at 34-83). Stone explained how her
pain severely limits her physical activity and prevents her
from sitting, standing, or walking more than fifteen minutes.
She testified that her surgeon has indicated that she will
need to have more back surgeries affecting her entire spine.
Stone also stated that she continues to suffer from bilateral
hand numbness and wrist pain which causes her to drop things.
She didn't think that she could lift more than a full pot
of coffee. As for her headaches, Stone described them as
being severe. Despite taking medication, Stone's
headaches still occur at least three to five times a week,
can last all day, and prevent her from getting out of bed. As
for Stone's mental health, it was acknowledged that Stone
is currently not undergoing counseling.
VE's testimony was based strictly on the (relevant)
hypothetical posed to him, which offered an assigned residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) of light work
with normal breaks and additional exertional and
environmental limitations. Per the VE, given the assigned
RFC, Stone would be able to perform unskilled work as a bench
assembler, routing clerk, and electrical assembler.
issued a decision on December 30, 2016, denying Stone
disability benefits and concluding that Stone was not
disabled under the Social Security Act because she was able
to perform other work in the economy. The Appeals Council
then denied Stone'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). Stone 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, while the ALJ is
not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony
presented, the ALJ must provide a “logical
bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions.
Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).
and supplemental insurance benefits are available only to
those individuals who can establish disability under the
terms of the Social Security Act. Estok v. Apfel,
152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998). Specifically, the claimant
must be 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A). The Social Security regulations create a
five-step sequential evaluation ...