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Potrebic v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

March 28, 2019

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



         Plaintiff Peggy S. Potrebic seeks judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision denying her disability benefits, and asks this Court to remand the case. For the reasons below, this Court remands the ALJ's decision.

         A. Overview of the Case

         Plaintiff alleges that he became disabled on January 8, 2010. (R. at 11.) After an initial hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) determined that Plaintiff was not disabled in December 2011. (R. at 8.) The District Court remanded the ALJ's decision in September 2014, ordering the ALJ to: properly account for Plaintiff's difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace in the RFC; incorporate a fuller discussion regarding Plaintiff's occasional use of her hands; and provide a more thorough analysis of Plaintiff's credibility. (R. at 478-504.) After a second hearing, the ALJ once again found in July of 2015 that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. at 838.) Plaintiff again appealed the decision to the District Court, where both parties agreed to a remand. The District Court once again instructed the ALJ to reconsider evidence related to Plaintiff's RFC with regards to concentration, persistence, and pace. (R. at 869.) Further, the ALJ was instructed to reassess Plaintiff's subjective complaints and obtain vocational expert testimony as necessary. (R. at 869.) After a third hearing, a different ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from severe impairments. (R. at 753.) The ALJ found Plaintiff disabled from January 8, 2010 through April 30, 2013, but not disabled as of May 1, 2013. (R. at 755.) This decision became final when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 870.)

         B. Standard of Review

         This Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court will ensure that the ALJ built an “accurate and logical bridge” from evidence to conclusion. Thomas v. Colvin, 745 F.3d 802, 806 (7th Cir. 2014). This requires the ALJ to “confront the [plaintiff's] evidence” and “explain why it was rejected.” Thomas v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 953, 961 (7th Cir. 2016). The Court will uphold decisions that apply the correct legal standard and are supported by substantial evidence. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). Evidence is substantial if “a reasonable mind might accept [it] as adequate to support [the ALJ's] conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971).

         C. Disability Standard

         The Commissioner follows a five-step inquiry in evaluating claims for disability benefits under the Social Security Act:

(1) Whether the claimant is currently employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment is one that the Commissioner considers conclusively disabling; (4) if the claimant does not have a conclusively disabling impairment, whether he can perform his past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.

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).

         D. Analysis

         Plaintiff filed an opening brief, and the Commissioner responded by filing a motion to remand for further administrative proceedings. Plaintiff objected to this motion in her response, arguing that only an award of benefits is the appropriate remedy. The vocational expert (“VE”) found that superficial contact with supervisors precluded all work, yet the ALJ included the limitation in the RFC and still found Plaintiff could perform work. Plaintiff argues there is no material fact in dispute, and therefore benefits should be awarded.

         (1) Vocational Expert Testimony

         At the hearing, the ALJ posed a hypothetical to the VE asking the VE to consider an individual of claimant's age, education, and work history who was limited to appropriate but superficial contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public. (R. at 808.) The VE stated that learning a job required more than superficial contact with a supervisor, even in unskilled jobs. (R. at 810.) The VE found that being limited to superficial dealing with supervisors would lead to being unable to perform any job. (R. at 810.) The ALJ continued with other hypotheticals, to which the VE answered with jobs Plaintiff could perform. (R. at 810-14.) However, when Plaintiff's counsel asked whether the limitation to superficial contact with supervisors would allow her to work the previous jobs listed, the VE answered that “[Plaintiff] couldn't do the jobs that I've indicated.” (R. at 814.) Further, “[i]f superficial [contact] is going to apply to the training period then there would be no jobs.” (R. at 814-15.) Yet in the ALJ's decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the ...

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