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Murphy v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

March 11, 2019

REBECCA SUE MURPHY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          William C. Lee, Judge

         This matter is before the court for judicial review of a final decision of the defendant Commissioner of Social Security Administration denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), as provided for in the Social Security Act. Section 205(g) of the Act provides, inter alia, "[a]s part of his answer, the [Commissioner] shall file a certified copy of the transcript of the record including the evidence upon which the findings and decision complained of are based. The court shall have the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner], with or without remanding the case for a rehearing." It also provides, "[t]he findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive. . . ." 42 U.S.C. §405(g).

         The law provides that an applicant for DIB must establish an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of no less than 12 months. . . ." 42 U.S.C. §416(i)(1); 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A). A physical or mental impairment is "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(3). It is not enough for a plaintiff to establish that an impairment exists. It must be shown that the impairment is severe enough to preclude the plaintiff from engaging in substantial gainful activity. Gotshaw v. Ribicoff, 307 F.2d 840 (7th Cir. 1962), cert. denied, 372 U.S. 945 (1963); Garcia v. Califano, 463 F.Supp. 1098 (N.D.Ill. 1979). It is well established that the burden of proving entitlement to disability insurance benefits is on the plaintiff. See Jeralds v. Richardson, 445 F.2d 36 (7th Cir. 1971); Kutchman v. Cohen, 425 F.2d 20 (7th Cir. 1970).

         Given the foregoing framework, "[t]he question before [this court] is whether the record as a whole contains substantial evidence to support the [Commissioner's] findings." Garfield v. Schweiker, 732 F.2d 605, 607 (7th Cir. 1984) citing Whitney v. Schweiker, 695 F.2d 784, 786 (7th Cir. 1982); 42 U.S.C. §405(g). "Substantial evidence is defined as 'more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Rhoderick v. Heckler, 737 F.2d 714, 715 (7th Cir. 1984) quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1410, 1427 (1971); see Allen v. Weinberger, 552 F.2d 781, 784 (7th Cir. 1977). "If the record contains such support [it] must [be] affirmed, 42 U.S.C. §405(g), unless there has been an error of law." Garfield, supra at 607; see also Schnoll v. Harris, 636 F.2d 1146, 1150 (7th Cir. 1980).

         In the present matter, after consideration of the entire record, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) made the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2016.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 31, 2011 (Ex. 7D, 8D, 9D, 10D), the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative joint disease in both of her knees, discogenic and degenerative changes in the lumbar spine, degenerative changes in the cervical spine, supraventricular tachycardia, peripheral artery disease, and obesity (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that she is able to stand/walk for a total of just 2 hours in an eight-hour period and occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
7. The claimant was born on September 16, 1960 and was 50 years old, which is defined as an individual closely approaching advanced age, on the alleged disability onset date. The claimant subsequently changed age category to advanced age when she attained age 55 in September 2015. Her age category has not changed otherwise (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
8. The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
9. The claimant has acquired work skills from past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1568 and 416.968).
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the claimant has acquired work skills from past relevant work that are transferable to other occupations with jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 404.1568(d), 416.969, 416.969(a), and 416.968(d)).
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from March 31, 2011, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g).

(Tr. 13- 22).

         Based upon these findings, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability insurance benefits. The ALJ's decision became the final agency decision when the Appeals Council denied review. This appeal followed.

         Plaintiff filed her opening brief on October 25, 2018. On January 23, 2019, the defendant filed a memorandum in support of the Commissioner's decision, to which Plaintiff replied on January 31, 2019. Upon full review of the record in this cause, this court is of the view that the ALJ's decision should be remanded.

         A five step test has been established to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See Singleton v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 710, 711 (7th Cir. 1988); Bowen v. Yuckert, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2290-91 (1987). The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has summarized that test as follows:

The following steps are addressed in order: (1) Is the claimant presently unemployed? (2) Is the claimant's impairment "severe"? (3) Does the impairment meet or exceed one of a list of specific impairments? (4) Is the claimant unable to perform his or her former occupation? (5) Is the claimant unable to perform any other work within the economy? An affirmative answer leads either to the next step or, on steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. A negative answer at any point, other than step 3, stops the inquiry and leads to a determination that the claimant is not disabled.

Nelson v. Bowen, 855 F.2d 503, 504 n.2 (7th Cir. 1988); Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir. 1985); accord Halvorsen v. Heckler, 743 F.2d 1221 (7th Cir. 1984). From the nature of the ALJ's decision to deny benefits, it is clear that Step 5 was the determinative inquiry.

         Plaintiff was born on September 16, 1960 and was 56 years-old on the date that the ALJ issued her decision. In March 2011, Plaintiff presented for treatment of knee pain and lower extremity swelling. (AR 724.) Examination revealed lower extremity edema. Id. Doctors prescribed the main medication methadone and the muscle relaxant Flexeril. Id. In April 2011, doctors observed that Plaintiff was shaking, gritting her teeth, was tearful, and presented with a racing heart. (AR 722.) Doctors prescribed the antidepressant Lexapro and the anti-anxiety medication Xanax. Id. She developed increasingly severe back pain in May 2011. (AR 720.) Her depression persisted in mid-2011 and doctors prescribed the antidepressant Elavil. (AR 711.) In November 2011, she presented with chest pain, dyspnea on exertion, and tachycardia. (AR 645.) An echocardiogram (ECG) reflected concentric left ventricular hypertrophy with impaired diastolic function. (AR 647.) Examination in December 2011 confirmed lower extremity edema. (AR 715.) A December 2011 pulmonary function test demonstrated decreased mid-expiratory flows and decreased diffusion capacity which could have been a component of anatomic emphysema. (AR 628.)

         In January 2012, doctors diagnosed supraventricular tachycardia after Plaintiff presented with a rapid heart rate. (AR 631.) An ECG suggested possible left ventricular enlargement. (AR 639.) Examination in March 2012 revealed tenderness to palpation over the lumbar spine. (AR 712.) Doctors prescribed the narcotic pain medication Vicoprofen, for Plaintiff had recently tapered off of methadone. (AR 712.) A July 2012 MRI of the lumbar spine confirmed disc bulge with facet arthropathy and bilateral foraminal narrowing at ¶ 3-L4, disc bulge with foraminal narrowing at ¶ 4-L5, and facet arthropathy at ¶ 5-S1. (AR 652.) A July 2012 x-ray of the knees reflected marked medial compartmental joint space narrowing and tricompartmental osteophytes. (AR 666.) Plaintiff presented at a neurological clinic in October 2012 for treatment of severe headaches. (AR 787.) She suffered incapacitating headaches that lasted for two-to-three days, up to three occasions each month. Id. She attempted to lie down when the headaches occurred but the pain often interrupted her sleep. Id. Additionally, the headaches produced impaired concentration and decreased appetite. Id. Doctors diagnosed migraine headache with aura and prescribed ...


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