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Keesler v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 25, 2019

DAVID L. KEESLER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of SSA, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff David L. Keesler appeals to the district court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).[1] (DE 1). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be REVERSED, and the case will be REMANDED to the Commissioner for further proceedings in accordance with this Opinion and Order.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Keesler applied for DIB and SSI in August 2014, alleging disability as of December 15, 2012.[2] (DE 10 Administrative Record (“AR”) 265-75). Keesler was last insured for DIB on March 31, 2015 (AR 13, 305), and therefore, he must establish that he was disabled as of that date with respect to his DIB claim. See Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1154 (7th Cir. 1997) (explaining that a claimant must establish that he was disabled as of his date last insured in order to recover DIB benefits). Keesler's application was denied on initial consideration and on reconsideration. (AR 181-214).

         A hearing was held on November 10, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge Terry Miller (the “ALJ”), at which Keesler, who was represented by counsel; Keesler's mother; and a vocational expert testified. (AR 30-88). On April 13, 2017, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Keesler, concluding that he was not disabled because despite the limitations caused by his impairments he could perform a significant number of unskilled, light exertional jobs in the economy. (AR 10-22). The Appeals Council denied Keesler's request for review (AR 1-5), at which point the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Keesler filed a complaint with this Court on June 8, 2018, seeking relief from the Commissioner's final decision. (DE 1). In this appeal, Keesler argues that the ALJ: (1) failed to evaluate at step three whether Keesler medically equaled Listing 11.03, non-convulsive seizures; (2) improperly evaluated the opinion of Dr. Shivam Dubey, Keesler's treating psychiatrist; and (3) failed to adequately account for Keesler's moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace in the hypothetical posed to the vocational expert at step five. (DE 18 at 5-17).

         At the time of the ALJ's decision, Keesler was 41 years old (AR 22, 90); had a seventh grade education without special education classes (AR 296); and had past work experience as a stocker at a large retail store work and as a bus person in a restaurant (AR 296, 386-87). Keesler alleges disability due to the following impairments: syncopal episodes/dizziness/pseudoseizures, hypertension, sinus tachycardia, obesity, hypothyroidism, obstructive sleep apnea, depressive disorder, and anxiety. (DE 18 at 2).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Section 405(g) of the Act grants this Court “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 cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court's task is limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, which means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). The decision will be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ applied an erroneous legal standard. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted).

         To determine if substantial evidence exists, the Court reviews the entire administrative record but does not reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Id. Rather, if the findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. Jens v. Barnhart, 347 F.3d 209, 212 (7th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). “In other words, so long as, in light of all the evidence, reasonable minds could differ concerning whether [the claimant] is disabled, we must affirm the ALJ's decision denying benefits.” Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 978 (7th Cir. 1996).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Law

         Under the Act, a claimant is entitled to DIB or SSI if he establishes 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 not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1), 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(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), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The Commissioner evaluates disability claims pursuant to a five-step evaluation process, requiring consideration of the following issues, in sequence: (1) whether the claimant is currently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the Commissioner, see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1; (4) whether the claimant is unable to perform his past work; and (5) whether the claimant is incapable of performing work in the national economy.[3]See Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. An affirmative answer leads either to the next step or, on steps three and five, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). A negative answer at any point other than step three stops ...


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