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Hawkins v. Berryhill

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

April 4, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on a Complaint [DE 2], filed by Plaintiff Ramona D. Hawkins on April 6, 2018, and an Opening Brief of Plaintiff in Social Security Appeal Pursuant to L.R. 7.3 [DE 18], filed on October 2, 2018. Plaintiff requests that the January 31, 2018 decision of the Administrative Law Judge denying her claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income be reversed and remanded for further proceedings. On December 21, 2018, the Commissioner filed a response, and Plaintiff filed a reply on January 4, 2019. For the following reasons, the Court grants Plaintiff's request for remand.


         On August 29, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits, and on November 18, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income. The disability insurance benefits application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and the supplemental security income application was escalated to the hearing level. Following a hearing held on December 18, 2013, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. Plaintiff filed suit in federal court, and, on March 30, 2017, the district court reversed the decision and remanded for further proceedings.

         On November 10, 2017, Plaintiff amended the disability onset date and requested a closed period of disability from December 31, 2009, to August 10, 2015. A new hearing was held before the ALJ on November 16, 2017, and, on January 31, 2018, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, making the following findings:[1]

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 30, 2017.
2. The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the requested closed period, December 31, 2009, to August 10, 2015.
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder; post-traumatic stress disorder; degenerative changes of the cervical spine, lumbar degenerative disc disease, status post surgery in 2008; minimal tri-compartmental degenerative osteophytes of the right knee; minimal degenerative changes in the left knee; stable chondral lesion of the left humeral head with tendinopathy; mild degenerative changes of the left acromio-clavicular (AC) joint; mild obstructive sleep apnea; insomnia; hypothyroidism; and obesity.
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the [ALJ found] that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a). She can lift, carry, push, and pull ten pounds, stand and/or walk for four hours during an eight-hour workday, sit for six hours throughout the workday, but cannot engage in any overhead work or any overhead reaching with her upper extremities. The claimant retains the mental residual functional capacity to perform tasks involving simple instructions, defined as tasks and instructions that can be learned through short demonstrations or when beyond short demonstration, up to and including one month, or in other words, special vocational preparation (SVP) levels one and two. She can make judgment and apply the common sense understanding required to carry out such instructions and tasks with both tasks and instructions falling within the realm of reasoning levels 1, 2, and 3. She can remember the associated work like procedures and maintain the focus, persistence, concentration, pace, and attention required to engage in such tasks for two hour increments and for eight-hour workdays within a low stress job defined as requiring only occasional decision making and only occasional changes in the work setting. The claimant can tolerate predictable changes in the work environment and meet production requirements in an environment that allows her to sustain a flexible and goal oriented pace.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work.
7. The claimant was born [in 1964] and was 50[sic] years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 45-49, on the alleged disability onset date.
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English.
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills.
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from August 10, 2015, through the date of this decision.[2]

(AR 580-96).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, leaving the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. Plaintiff filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the Agency's decision.

         The parties filed forms of consent to have this case assigned to a United States Magistrate Judge to conduct all further proceedings and to order the entry of a final judgment in this case. Therefore, this Court has jurisdiction to decide this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The Social Security Act authorizes judicial review of the agency's final decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The question before the Court is not whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled but whether the ALJ “uses the correct legal standards and the decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Summers v. Berryhill, 864 F.3d 523, 526 (7th Cir. 2017); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Under § 405(g), the Court must accept the Commissioner's factual findings as conclusive if they are supported by substantial evidence, which is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1120- 21 (7th Cir. 2014) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court reviews the entire administrative record but does not re-weigh the evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See McKinzey v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 890 (7th Cir. 2011) (quoting Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003)). However, “if the Commissioner commits an error of law, ” the Court may reverse the decision “without regard to the volume of evidence in support of the factual findings.” White v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 369, 373 (7th Cir. 1999) (citing Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997)).

         At a minimum, an ALJ must articulate his analysis of the evidence in order to allow the reviewing court to trace the path of his reasoning and to be assured that the ALJ considered the important evidence. See Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002). “The ALJ has a basic obligation to develop a full and fair record and must build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the result to afford the claimant meaningful judicial review of the administrative findings.” Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 837 (7th Cir. 2014) (internal citations omitted).


         To be eligible for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must establish that she suffers from a “disability, ” which is defined as an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The ALJ follows a five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of disability, (2) whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that is severe, (3) whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the criteria of any impairment listed in the regulations as presumptively disabling, (4) whether, if the claimant does not meet a listing, the claimant is unable to perform the claimant's past relevant work, and (5) whether, if the claimant is ...

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