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Jennifer F. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

March 13, 2019

JENNIFER F., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ENTRY ON JUDICIAL REVIEW

          TANYA WALTON PRATT, JUDGE

         Plaintiff Jennifer F.[1] requests judicial review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “SSA”), denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act. For the following reasons, the Court REMANDS the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On August 29, 2014, Jennifer F. filed an application for SSI, alleging a disability onset date of April 1, 2004. (Filing No. 7-2 at 11.) Her application was initially denied on April 9, 2015, (Filing No. 7-4 at 2), and upon reconsideration on June 29, 2015, (Filing No. 7-4 at 11). Administrative Law Judge David L. Welch (the “ALJ”) conducted a hearing on March 17, 2017, at which Jennifer F., represented by counsel, a vocational expert (“VE”), Dr. George Parsons, and two medical experts, Dr. Lee Fisher and Dr. Don Olive, appeared and testified. (Filing No. 7-2 at 34-65.) The ALJ issued a decision on August 4, 2017, concluding that Jennifer F. was not entitled to receive SSI. (Filing No. 7-2 at 8.) The Appeals Council denied review on January 25, 2018. (Filing No. 7-2 at 2.) On March 13, 2018, Jennifer F. timely filed this civil action, asking the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) to review the final decision of the Commissioner denying her benefits. (Filing No. 1.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under the Social Security Act, a claimant may be entitled to benefits only after she establishes that she is disabled. Disability is defined as the “inability 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). To be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled despite her medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment that also meets the durational requirement, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelve-month duration requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         If the claimant's impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the impairments on the Listing of Impairments, then her residual functional capacity will be assessed and used for the fourth and fifth steps. Residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is the “maximum that a claimant can still do despite [her] mental and physical limitations.” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 675-76 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At the fifth and final step, it must be determined whether the claimant can perform any other work, given her RFC and considering her age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). The claimant is not disabled if she can perform any other work in the relevant economy.

         The combined effect of all the impairments of the claimant shall be considered throughout the disability determination process. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B). The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps; it then shifts to the Commissioner for the fifth step. Young v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992).

         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]ubstantial 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, 539 F.3d at 678, 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).

         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).

         III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Jennifer F. was 35 years of age at the time she applied for benefits, alleging she could no longer work due to a back injury, hepatitis C, a left arm injury with necrotizing fasciitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, irritable bowel syndrome, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, spinal stenosis, and fibromyalgia. (Filing No. 7-6 at 18.) She has completed high school, (Filing No. 7-6 at 19), and previously worked as a cashier, cook, and assembly line worker, (Filing No. 7-6 at 20).[2]

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) and ultimately concluded that Jennifer F. was not disabled. (Filing No. 7-2 at 21.) At step one, the ALJ found that Jennifer F. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 29, 2014, the application date.[3] (Filing No. 7-2 at 13.) At step two, the ALJ found that she had the following severe impairments: “lumbar degenerative disc disease with radiation to the left lower extremity, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease “COPD”, fibromyalgia, hepatitis C, irritable bowel syndrome, left upper extremity necrotizing fasciitis, affective disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder “PTSD” (20 CFR 416.920(c)).” (Filing No. 7-2 at 13.) At step three, the ALJ ...


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