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Shonda S. v. Berryhill

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

March 25, 2019

SHONDA S., [1] Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Shonda S. (“Ms. S.”) protectively applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) on August 2, 2014, alleging an onset date of December 18, 2012. [ECF No. 5-2 at 35.] Her applications were initially denied on September 12, 2014, [ECF No. 5-4 at 2], and upon reconsideration on December 30, 2014, [ECF No. 5-4 at 11; ECF No. 5-4 at 18]. Administrative Law Judge T. Whitaker (the “ALJ”) conducted a hearing on October 31, 2016. [ECF No. 5-2 at 57-95.] The ALJ issued a decision on January 13, 2017, concluding that Ms. S. was not entitled to receive DIB or SSI. [ECF No. 5-2 at 32.] The Appeals Council denied review on January 9, 2018. [ECF No. 5-2 at 2.] On March 8, 2018, Ms. S. timely filed this civil action asking the Court to review the denial of benefits according to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). [ECF No. 1.]


         Standard of Review

         “The Social Security Act authorizes payment of disability insurance benefits … to individuals with disabilities.” Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214 (2002). “The statutory definition of ‘disability' has two parts. First, it requires a certain kind of inability, namely, an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. Second, it requires an impairment, namely, a physical or mental impairment, which provides reason for the inability. The statute adds that the impairment must be one that has lasted or can be expected to last . . . not less than 12 months.” Id. at 217.

         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]ubstan-tial 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 v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008), 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).

         The ALJ must apply the five-step inquiry set forth in 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), [2] evaluating the following, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently [un]employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the [Commissioner]; (4) whether the claimant can perform her past work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.

Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted) (alterations in original). “If a claimant satisfies steps one, two, and three, she will automatically be found disabled. If a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then she must satisfy step four. Once step four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.” Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).

         After Step Three, but before Step Four, the ALJ must determine a claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) by evaluating “all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009). In doing so, the ALJ “may not dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling.” Id. The ALJ uses the RFC at Step Four to determine whether the claimant can perform her own past relevant work and if not, at Step Five to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(iv), (v). The burden of proof is on the claimant for Steps One through Four; only at Step Five does the burden shift to the Commissioner. See Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

         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).

         II. Background

         Ms. S. was 48 years of age at the time she applied for DIB and SSI. [ECF No. 5-5 at 2.] She has completed a high school education and previously worked in a variety of manufacturing positions. [ECF No. 5-6 at 8-9.][3]

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) and ultimately concluded that Ms. S. was not disabled. [ECF No. 5-2 at 49.] Specifically, the ALJ found as follows:

• Ms. S. last met the insured status requirements for DIB on December 31, 2013 (the date last insured or “DLI”).[4] [ECF No. 5-2 at 37.]
• At Step One, Ms. S. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity[5] since December 18, 2012, the alleged onset date. [ECF No. 5-2 at 37.]
• At Step Two, she had the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease and arthritis of the cervical spine, history of left shoulder injury, osteoar-thritis of bilateral knees; degenerative disc disease of the spine with chronic back pain, obesity, chronic tension type headaches, headaches, hypertension, migraine headache, partial seizures, major depression, unspecified depressive disorder with anxious distress, unspecified depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disease and posttraumatic stress disorder.” [ECF No. 5-2 at 37.]
• At Step Three, she did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. [ECF No. 5-2 at 39.]
• After Step Three but before Step Four, she had the RFC to “lift, push, pull, and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sit [a] total of 8 hours of an 8 hour workday; stand [a] total of 4 hours in an 8 hour workday; walk [a] total of 2 hours of an 8 hour workday; limited to work that allows the individual to sit and stand alternatively provided that the claimant can sit for a total of 2 hours at one time, stand for a total of 1 hour at one time, and walk for a total of 30-40 feet at one time and further provided claimant is in the new position for at least 2 minutes before resuming the prior positions; never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds; never climb ramps or stairs; occasional balance; never kneel, crouch or crawl; only occasional stooping but not below the waist; with the dominant left upper extremity only occasional overhead reaching; occasional exposure to respiratory irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts and gases; no exposure to unprotected heights, dangerous machinery; limited to simple, routine, and repetitive work; limited to work with only occasional interaction with the public; only occasional interaction with coworkers; and only occasional interaction with supervisors. This assessment is consistent with the ability perform less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)).” [ECF No. 5-2 at 41-42.]
• At Step Four, relying on the testimony of the vocational expert (“VE”) and considering Ms. S.'s RFC, she was incapable of performing any of her past relevant work as a material handler, numerical control machine operator, motor vehicle assembler, spot welder (production line), and electronic component processor. [ECF No. 5-2 at 47.]
• At Step Five, relying on VE testimony and considering Ms. S.'s age, education, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she could have performed through the date of the decision, including representative occupations such as a small parts assembler, inspector and hand packager, and plastic hospital product assembler. [ECF No. 5-2 at 47-48.]

         III. ...

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