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Stone v. Berryhill

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

March 6, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         On 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.

         I. FACTS

         Stone filed applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) in April 2014, alleging an onset date of September 30, 2012.[1] 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.

         With 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).

         As for 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).

         Despite 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.

         The VE's testimony was based strictly on the (relevant) hypothetical posed to him, which offered an assigned residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] 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.

         The ALJ 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).


         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, 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).


         Disability 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 ...

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