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Cook v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 8, 2019

MELINDA S. COOK, Plaintiff,


          Michael G. Gotsch, Sr. United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Melinda S. Cook seeks judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision that, as of February 16, 2015, she was no longer entitled to Title II disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), and Title XVI supplemental security income (“SSI”). This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and may enter a ruling in this matter based on the parties' consent pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). For the reasons below, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

         I. Overview of the Case

         Cook alleges that the depressive condition that initially entitled her to disability benefits has not improved, and that she is thus entitled to continue receiving disability benefits. [DE 37 at 7]. In a decision dated July 15, 2008, Cook was found disabled as of August 16, 2004. Thus, initially, Cook was deemed eligible for disability benefits based upon her severe impairment of depression, which met or equaled Listings 12.04 and 12.08. [DE 27 at 9]; see also 20 C.F.R. 404, Subpart P, App. 1.

         However, after conducting a review of Cook's disability, as authorized by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1589, the Commissioner determined that Cook “was no longer disabled as of” February 16, 2015. [DE 21 at 23]. Cook filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), who determined that the claimant's disability had indeed ended on February 16, 2015, and that the claimant had not become disabled again thereafter. [Id. at 33]. The ALJ reached this conclusion because he found that Cook no longer had marked or extreme limitations in her functioning under the relevant paragraph B criteria, and thus her mental impairment no longer met or equaled any Listing, including 12.02, 12.04, or 12.08. [Id. at 27]. In reaching this decision, the ALJ also considered Cook's other severe impairments of borderline intellectual functioning, obesity, degenerative disc disease, and right elbow impairment. [Id. at 25-26]. While the ALJ found that Cook continued to have severe impairments, the ALJ also found that Cook had the residual functioning capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in the regulations with some additional specified limitations.[1] [Id. at 28]. As a result, the ALJ affirmed the Commissioner's decision finding Cook no longer disabled. [Id. at 33].

         II. Disability Cessation Standard

         As a preliminary matter, the Commissioner's response brief reflects an erroneous application of the five-step, initial disability analysis outlined at 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 to Cook's case. In cases like Cook's, where the issue is whether the disability continues, an eight-step analysis, as outlined at 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f), applies. Notably, some steps in the eight-step disability review process are identical to steps in the five-step initial disability process, such as the Listing analysis and RFC determination. Therefore, the Commissioner's relevant arguments in her response brief can be considered here.

         The eight-step inquiry in evaluating whether disability benefits continue is as follows:

(1) Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity? If so, his or her disability has ended. (2) If not, does the claimant have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet(s) or equal(s) the severity of a listed impairment? If so, the disability will be found to continue. (3) If not, has there been a medical improvement? If so, go to step (4). If not, go to step (5). (4) Is the medical improvement related to the claimant's ability to do work; i.e., has there been an increase in the RFC? If not, go to step (5). If so, go to step (6). (5) If at step (3) there has been no medical improvement, or if at step (4) medical improvement is not related to ability to do work, do any exceptions apply? If one of the improvements from the first group of medical improvements applies, then look to step (6). If an exception from the second group applies, then the disability has ended. (6) Are the claimant's current impairments severe in combination? If not, the disability has ended. (7) If so, can the claimant (based on his or her residual functional capacity) perform his or her past relevant work? If so, the disability ends. (8) If not, can the claimant do other work given his or her residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience? If so, the disability has ended.

See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f).

         The determination of whether disability benefits continue is made on a “neutral basis . . . without any initial inference” that the claimant's disability continues. 42 U.S.C. § 423(f)(4); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(6). As a result, Cook is not entitled to a presumption of continuing disability. See Frazee v. Berryhill, No. 1:16cv329, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 122292 (N.D. Ind. Aug. 2, 2017) (citing Soper v. Heckler, 754 F.2d 222, 224 n.1 (7th Cir. 1985)) aff'd, 733 Fed.Appx. 831 (2018). The claimant bears the burden of showing by medical evidence that she is disabled. Mables v. Sullivan, 812 F.Supp. 886, 888 (C.D. Ill. 1993) (citing Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 336 (1976)). Nevertheless, where the claimant was initially determined to be disabled, “it has been long established that, the ‘Commissioner bears the burden in a continuing disability case of showing that the claimant has experienced medical improvement such that he can engage in substantial gainful activity.'” Johnson v. Berryhill, No. 1:17cv347, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88592, at *25 (N.D. Ind. May 24, 2018) (quoting Hickey v. Colvin, No. 13 C 7857, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 82435 (N.D. Ill. June 25, 2015); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(5); Mables, 812 F.Supp. 886 at 888.

         III. Standard of Review

         This Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decisions regarding continuing disability under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). However, this Court's role in the judicial review of Social Security Administration cases is limited, such that it cannot reweigh the facts or evidence. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). The Court must give deference to the ALJ's decision so long as it is supported by substantial evidence. Thomas v. Colvin, 745 F.3d 802, 806 (7th Cir. 2014) (citing Similia v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 513 (7th Cir. 2009)). The ALJ's decision must demonstrate a “logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015). The deference for the ALJ's decision is lessened where the ALJ's findings contain error of fact or logic, or fail to apply the correct legal standard. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 709 (7th Cir. 2013).

         Additionally, an ALJ's decision cannot be affirmed if it lacks evidentiary support or an inadequate discussion of the issues. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Moreover, the ALJ's decision will lack sufficient evidentiary support and require remand if it is clear that the ALJ only selected and discussed evidence that favored his ultimate conclusion. Wilson v. Colvin, 48 F.Supp.3d 1140, 1147 (N.D. Ill. 2014) (citing Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994)). At a minimum, an ALJ must articulate her analysis of the record to allow the reviewing court to trace a path of her reasoning and to be assured the ALJ has considered the important evidence in the record. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002). While the ALJ need not specifically address every piece of evidence in the record to present the requisite “logical bridge” from the evidence to her conclusions, O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2010), the ALJ must at least provide a glimpse into the reasoning behind her analysis and the decision to deny benefits. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 889 (7th Cir. 2001).

         Thus, the question upon judicial review is not whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled, but whether the ALJ used “the correct legal standards and the decision [was] supported by substantial evidence.” Roddy v. Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2007). Consequentially, substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla” or “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Summers v. Berryhill, 864 F.3d 523, 526 (7th Cir. 2017).

         IV. ...

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