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Heidi Music v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 18, 2019

HEIDI MUSIC, Plaintiff,


          Michael G. Gotsch, Sr. United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Heidi Music seeks judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision denying her application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) as allowed under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d). This Court may enter a ruling in this matter based on the parties' consent pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Music filed her opening brief on May 21, 2018. [DE 14]. The Commissioner responded on June 19, 2018. [DE 16]. The matter is now ripe for adjudication, as Music has neither replied nor sought an extension of time within the 14-days prescribed by Local Rule 7-3(d). For the reasons below, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

         I. Overview of the Case

         Music filed an application for DIB with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) on April 8, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of November 1, 2009. Music's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. At her request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on December 19, 2016, at which Music amended her onset date to February 5, 2013.[1] Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision on May 16, 2017, based upon the five-step disability evaluation process prescribed by the SSA's regulations. See20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         At Step One, the ALJ reviewed internal SSA earnings records and determined that Music-a high school graduate who had worked previously as a dairy farm worker-had engaged in substantial gainful activity between the amended alleged onset date of February 5, 2013, through the end of December 2015. [DE 10 at 23]. As a result, the ALJ stated that “the remainder of this decision pertains to January 1, 2016, through the date of this decision.” [DE 10 at 23]. Nevertheless, the ALJ cited to medical evidence dating from as early as March 2012 until August 22, 2016, in his analysis of the subsequent steps in the disability determination.

         At Step Two, the ALJ found that Music had the following severe impairments: (1) lumbar spine degenerative disc disease; (2) cervical degenerative disc disease; (3) obstructive sleep apnea; (4) chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”); (5) asthma; (6) periodic limb movement disorder; (7) obesity; (8) migraines; and (9) left hand early primary osteoarthritis. At Step Three of the evaluation, the ALJ concluded that Music's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listed impairments.

         Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ analyzed Music's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and concluded that she retained the ability to perform light work with some limitations. Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that Music is unable to perform past relevant work, at Step Four. At Step Five, however, the ALJ found that, in consideration of Music's age, education, work experience, and RFC, Music can perform a significant number of jobs that exist within the national economy, including office helper, packager, and inspector as those jobs are defined by the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. Based upon these findings, the ALJ concluded that Music has not been under a disability as defined by the SSA, from February 5, 2013, through May 16, 2017, and denied Music's claims for benefits. [Id. at 30].

         II. Disability Standard

         In order to qualify for DIB, a claimant must be “disabled” under the Social Security Act (“Act”). A person is disabled under the Act if “he or she has an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Commissioner's five-step inquiry in evaluating claims for disability benefits under the Act includes determinations as to: (1) whether the claimant is doing substantial gainful activity (“SGA”); (2) whether the claimant's impairments are severe; (3) whether any of the claimant's impairments, alone or in combination, meet or equal one of the Listings in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Part 404; (4) whether the claimant can perform her past relevant work based upon her RFC; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of making an adjustment to other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Kastner v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 642, 646 (7th Cir. 2012). The claimant bears the burden of proof at every step except Step Five. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000).

         III. Standard of Review

         This Court has authority to review a disability decision by the Commissioner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). However, this Court's role in reviewing Social Security cases is limited. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). A court reviews the entire administrative record, but does not reconsider facts, re-weigh the evidence, resolve conflicts of evidence, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Boiles v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 421, 425 (7th Cir. 2005). 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 deference for the ALJ's decision is lessened where the ALJ's findings contain errors 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). An ALJ's decision will lack sufficient evidentiary support and require remand if it is clear that the ALJ “cherry-picked” the record to support a finding of non-disability. Denton v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th Cir. 2010); see also Wilson v. Colvin, 48 F.Supp.3d 1140, 1147 (N.D. Ill. 2014). At a minimum, an ALJ must articulate his analysis of the record to allow the reviewing court to trace the path of his 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 his conclusions, the ALJ must at least provide a glimpse into the reasoning behind his analysis and the decision to grant or deny benefits. O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2010); see also Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015).

         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 to deny benefits [was] supported by substantial evidence.” Roddy v. Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2007). Substantial 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, substantial evidence is simply “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); Kepple v. Massanari, 268 F.3d 513, 516 (7th. Cir. 2001).

         IV. ...

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