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Palmer v. Berryhill

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

March 18, 2019

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



         Ramona Palmer appeals the Social Security Administration's decision to deny her protective application for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Palmer alleges a disability due to, generally speaking, back issues, hip, knee, left shoulder, arthritis in shoulder, anxiety, sciatica, chronic lower back pain, Ehlers-Danlos, and dyslexia. [Tr. 102-03.][1] An administrative law judge ruled Palmer was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and that she had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform the full range of sedentary work.

         Palmer challenges the ALJ's decision on three grounds. First, she argues the ALJ erred by not properly evaluating her pain. Second, Palmer takes issue with the ALJ's evaluation at Step 5 that she is capable of performing the full range of sedentary jobs. Third, she argues that the ALJ improperly found her alleged mental impairments were non-severe. These arguments are unavailing and none are grounds for reversal.

         The ALJ found that Palmer had the severe impairments of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome which manifests itself in overly flexible joints. The ALJ further found that Palmer had mild degenerative changes in various joints. [Tr. 18.] Aside from this severe impairment, Palmer had a number of other medical challenges which are fully recounted in the ALJ's opinion and which need not be repeated here. [See Tr. at 18-23.]

         Let's start with a description of the role I play in reviewing the work of an ALJ. I am not supposed to determine from scratch whether or not Palmer is disabled. Rather, I only need to determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Shideler v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 306, 310 (7th Cir. 2012); Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 926 (7th Cir. 2010); Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008). My review of the ALJ's decision is deferential. This is because the “substantial evidence” standard is not a particularly rigorous one. In fact, the Supreme Court announced long ago that the standard is even less than a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Of course, there certainly has to be more than a “scintilla” of evidence. Id. So in conducting my review, I cannot “simply rubber-stamp the Commissioner's decision without a critical review of the evidence.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). Nonetheless, the review is a light one and the substantial evidence standard is met “if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support the conclusion.” Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004).

         Evaluation of Pain

         Palmer first maintains that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her pain. This argument seems to have a few prongs, including her belief that the ALJ failed to consider the aggregate effect of her ailments, the RFC is improper, and the ALJ discounted her subjective complaints of pain. [DE 19 at 14-16.]

         Palmer's argument that the ALJ failed to consider the aggregate effect of her ailments and pain is completely lacking in detail. She lists a number of diagnoses, and then drops a footnote which refers me to the “notable large footnotes” in the statement of fact which again merely list references to her illnesses or pain in the record. [DE 19 at 9-10.] This is entirely unhelpful. Each party bears the burden of pointing out specific portions of evidence in the court's possession to support her case. Hermann v. Astrue, No. 07 C 6914, 2010 WL 356233, at *13 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 1, 2010). Palmer's brief does not do this - it fails to connect citations to the record with any meaningful legal analysis.

         On the other hand, the ALJ did account for the evidence of pain in the record - he analyzed Palmer's pain for 6 pages in his opinion. [Tr. 24-30.] The ALJ considered Palmer's daily activities, the type of treatment she received for pain or other symptoms, and the type and dosage of medication. [Tr. 24.] The ALJ specifically acknowledged Palmer's hearing testimony that she could not work because she hurts, her accounts with struggles of daily living activities (like having to use both hands to lift a gallon of milk), her reports that her Ehlers' Danlos symptoms were worsening, and the testimony from Palmer's future daughter-in-law and friend. [Tr. 24-25.] The ALJ addressed her complaints of pain head-on, but found “despite a record with many alleged symptoms and subjective complaints, her allegations for disabling symptoms are not supported by the objective medical findings and diagnostic testing. The medical evidence reflects that the claimant has complaints, but her allegations are unsupported [by] the few objective findings and x-rays.” [Tr. 25.]

         The ALJ then laboriously went through the medical evidence in the record related to pain, noting things like “it is true that Dr. Bader diagnosed Ehler's Danlos hyperextensible type but aside from a loose elbow, thumb and finger joints, she was not reported with other significant abnormalities” [Tr. 26]; December 2016 x-rays of the back which were considered negative, or revealed normal or minimal findings of the lumbar spine [Tr. 27]; despite knee complaints, x-rays revealed well maintained joint spaces, patellar tilt and no fracture [Tr. 27]; Oaklawn psychiatric center diagnosed Palmer with no restrictions on her activity level, and stated she could participate in 20-30 minutes of aerobic activities [Tr. 690]; the treatment notes failed to establish a severe respiratory condition [Tr. 28]; in late 2015, Palmer reported she rode a bike 5 times per week for 2 miles [Tr. 691]; and the consultative examination by Dr. Gupta on August 15, 2015 revealed:

no anatomical deformities, no spinous or paraspinal tenderness, full ranges of motion in all spines, negative straight leg raises, normal curvature in all spines, no stiffness of effusion in the upper extremities, no edema, only mild pain in the left shoulder with normal motion, “5/5" strength in the upper extremities, full ranges of motion in all lower extremities with 5/5 strengths, normal gait, the ability to arise without difficulties, normal grip strength, normal coordination, preserved memory, 2/4 deep tendon reflexes and good fine finger manipulative abilities.

[Tr. 28, Ex. 7F.] In sum, the ALJ found that “[t]hese findings do not support allegations for greater limitation of function.” [Tr. 28.]

         Additionally, the ALJ concluded that Palmer “failed her burden to establish greater limitations of function, than those reflected in the residual functional capacity, and lasting twelve months in duration. The claimant failed her burden of documenting a logical bridge between allegations, the record and greater limitations of function.” [Tr. 29.] I agree with the conclusion - and in this appeal, Palmer still has not pointed me to anything specifically in the record, or articulated any specific legal argument in support of her bald claim that the ALJ did not properly evaluate Palmer's pain. Just saying it does not make it so, and in light of the ALJ's detailed pain analysis supported by substantial evidence in the record, Palmer's claim fails.

         To the extent Palmer asserts the RFC is incorrect, this argument also does not point me to anything in the medical record supporting the contention that she is limited in concentration, persistence and pace beyond what the ALJ assessed. “[I]t is not the Court's obligation to scour the record in search of such evidence.” Crump v. Berryhill, No. 3:17-cv-557, 2018 WL 4627217, at *2 (N.D. Ind. Sept. 27, 2018). Palmer claims that “she cannot last even five minutes while [sic] hurting before then at her prior hobby of crochet.” [DE 19 at 15]. She further says that the ALJ should have limited her sedentary position because she cannot sit through church service. Id. But these are similar to the other subjective complaints ...

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