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Engstrand v. Berryhill

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

March 25, 2019

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



         On February 13, 2018, Plaintiff Terry Engstrand filed a complaint [DE 1] in this Court seeking review of the final decision of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security denying his applications for social security disability benefits.[1] The matter is briefed and ripe for decision [DE 16; DE 19; DE 20; DE 23]. For the reasons stated below, the Court remands this matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. FACTS

         Since 1978, Engstrand has performed very heavy exertional work as either a maintenance supervisor, landscaper, or farm laborer. By the year 2000, he had already undergone two back surgeries as a result. By December 28, 2013, Engstrand claims that he became disabled due to lumbar degenerative disc disease and chronic pain. Administrative Law Judge Kevin Vodak (“the ALJ”) disagreed and believed that Engstrand could still perform work as a maintenance supervisor, not as actually performed, but as generally performed at the light exertional level.[2]However, had the ALJ determined that Engstrand was at most capable of performing sedentary work, then Engstrand would have been automatically deemed disabled by reason of his age of fifty-five and the direct application of Medical-Vocational Rules 201.00(d) and 201.06. After the ALJ issued his decision on January 13, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Engstrand's request for review which made the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). Engstrand seeks review of the Commissioner's decision, thereby invoking this Court's jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         The ALJ set forth a chronology of Engstrand's extensive medical records with respect to his various physical impairments, including degenerative disc disease, obesity, coronary artery disease, cervical pain, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia (Tr. 21-26). However, most relevant to this appeal, and thus, the focus of this Order, is the ALJ's discounting of Engstrand's claimed severity of his lumbar pain and resulting limitations. Specifically, Engstrand contends that the ALJ's errors in assessing his credibility adversely impacted the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[3] determination; and for that reason, substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's decision that Engstrand has the RFC to perform light work.[4]

         In summarizing Engstrand's hearing testimony[5] (Tr. 22-23), the ALJ acknowledged Engstrand's subjective report that his back pain radiates to his buttocks, legs, and ankles, and that it has progressed over time, thereby causing sleep deprivation and concentration problems. Pain medication only took the “edge off, ” and Engstrand rated his pain level as a six on a ten-point pain scale. Engstrand reported that he could only walk about half of a block before needing to stop and stretch, and he could only stand long enough to wash five dishes. The ALJ also indicated that Engstrand's typical day was limited to showering, making simple meals, watching television, walking or exercising (some), playing boardgames, and using an ice pack on his back.

         The ALJ opined that Engstrand's “statements and hearing testimony regarding the severity and limiting effects of his impairments [were] partially consistent with the totality of the objective medical record.” (Tr. at 26-27). In finding Engstrand to be less than fully credible, the ALJ specifically referred to a medical report from December 2015 which documented Engstrand's report of “well controlled” pain, accompanied by a recommendation that Engstrand needed to “stay as active as possible.” As a further basis for discounting Engstrand's testimony, the ALJ relied on normal musculoskeletal exam findings from October 2014, March 2015, and June 2015. The ALJ also referred to Engstrand's having “some history of noncompliance with [his] treatment regimen, ” as a basis for not entirely believing his allegations of disabling pain.

         Reviewing state agents opined that as of June and September 2014, Engstrand could perform work at the light exertional level (Tr. 69-93). Accordingly, Engstrand's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration.

         Thereafter, in 2016, both a treating pain doctor and a physical therapist of Engstrand's reported that Engstrand suffered from pain and resulting limitations that prevented him from standing, walking, and sitting long enough to perform light exertional work (Tr. 514-618).

         Despite this evidence, the ALJ posed a hypothetical to the VE premised on the ALJ's ultimate RFC conclusion, which offered an assigned RFC of light work, limited by various exertional and environmental limitations, including the ability to sit for up to three minutes every hour, then return to standing/walking (Tr. at 59-67). Per the VE, with this RFC in mind, Engstrand would be able to perform his past work as a maintenance supervisor, as generally performed at the light exertional level. The VE's testimony served as the basis for the ALJ's denial of benefits.


         This Court will affirm the Commissioner's findings of fact and denial of disability benefits if they are supported by substantial evidence. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). This 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, even if “reasonable minds could differ” about the disability status of the claimant, the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision as long as it is adequately supported. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         In this substantial-evidence determination, the Court considers the entire administrative record but does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute the Court's own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Nevertheless, the Court conducts a “critical review of the evidence” before affirming the Commissioner's decision. Id. An ALJ must evaluate both the evidence favoring the claimant as well as the evidence favoring the claim's rejection and may not ignore an entire line of evidence that is contrary to the ALJ's findings. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 888 (7th Cir. 2001). Consequently, an ALJ's decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues. Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539. Ultimately, while the ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, the ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).


         Disability and supplemental insurance benefits are available only to those individuals who can establish disability under the terms of the Social Security Act. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998). Specifically, the claimant must be unable “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). The Social Security regulations create a five-step sequential evaluation ...

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