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Morrison v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 29, 2019

HARRY E. MORRISON, JR., Plaintiff,


          Michael G. Gotsch, Sr. United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff, Harry E. Morrison, Jr., seeks judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision that he is not entitled to Title II Disability Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and may enter a ruling in this matter based on the parties' consent pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         I. Relevant Background

         In an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) filed with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) on January 21, 2014, Morrison sought disability benefits based upon his impairments of depression, anxiety, back problems, and asthma. He alleged an onset of disability starting September 29, 2012, at which time he was 51 years old and had last worked as a casting machine operator. Morrison had worked since he was about 16 years old and posted earnings for the 32 years before his alleged onset date. Morrison had even returned to work after suffering a heart attack and enduring multiple back surgeries.

         A. Procedure

         SSA denied his claim initially on May 30, 2014, and again upon reconsideration on August 29, 2014. Morrison testified at a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on January 26, 2017. A medical expert and vocational expert also testified at the ALJ hearing. On February 15, 2017, the ALJ issued her decision finding that Morrison was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. On October 3, 2017, the Social Security Appeals Council denied Morrison's request for review, making the ALJ's decision denying benefits the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

         On December 2, 2017, Morrison filed a complaint in this Court seeking reversal or remand of the Commissioner's decision. Morrison filed his initial brief in this matter on April 27, 2018. On August 3, 2018, the Commissioner filed a response requesting that the Court affirm the decision denying benefits. This matter became ripe on August 20, 2018, without any reply brief being filed.

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         Under the Social Security Act, individuals are deemed “disabled” if they are 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). When determining whether a claimant is “disabled, ” an ALJ must follow the five-step sequential evaluation process outlined in the agency's regulations. See20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The five-step process requires the ALJ to determine

(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) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The claimant bears the burden of proof at every step except Step Five. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000).

         Here, the ALJ found at Step One that Morrison had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of September 29, 2012.

         At Step Two, the ALJ found that Morrison's lumbar spine degenerative disc disease; cardiomyopathy with a history of ventricular tachycardia compensated by a defibrillator; history of chronic heart failure; coronary artery disease; obesity; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD); major depressive disorder; and anxiety constituted severe impairments. The ALJ also considered Morrison's other impairments of erectile dysfunction and narcolepsy at Step Two, but found that they did not affect Morrison's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) because they “either occurred before the alleged onset date of disability or presented no residual signs or symptoms expected to last at least twelve months.” [DE 11 at 22].

         The ALJ then concluded at Step Three that Morrison did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. As part of her Step Three analysis, the ALJ assessed the four areas of Morrison's mental functioning known as paragraph B criteria. The ALJ found that Morrison has (1) mild limitations in understanding, remembering, or applying information; (2) mild limitations in interacting with others; (3) moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace; and (4) moderate limitations in adapting or managing himself. [DE 11 at 24].

         Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ assessed Morrison's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). A claimant's RFC is based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in his case record” and reflects the most he can still do despite his functional limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). The ALJ found that Morrison has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), but could only frequently stoop, kneel, balance, and climb ramps and stairs; and occasionally crawl, crouch, and climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The ALJ also found that Morrison should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, humidity, dust, odors, fumes, and gases, and that he is only capable of performing simple and detailed one-to-five-step instructions.

         When conducting an RFC analysis, an ALJ must consider all of a claimant's symptoms, their consistency with the objective medical evidence and other evidence in the record, and their intensity, persistence, and limiting effects in determining his functional limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529. Assessing a claimant's symptoms is a two-step process determining first whether a claimant's medically determinable impairments could be expected to reasonably cause the claimant's symptoms then evaluating the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of those symptoms on the claimant's functionality. SSR 96-4p. In this case, the ALJ found that Morrison's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to produce [his] alleged symptoms [but ...

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