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Cheryl M. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

April 5, 2019

CHERYL M., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ENTRY ON JUDICIAL REVIEW

          TANYA WALTON PRATT, JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Cheryl M.[1] requests judicial review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “SSA”), denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). For the following reasons, the Court affirms the decision of the Acting Commissioner.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On September 23, 2014, Cheryl M. protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI. (Filing No. 7-2 at 28.) She initially alleged a disability onset date of December 31, 2011, (Filing No. 7-5 at 2), but appears to have amended her onset date to the date she stopped working, January 15, 2012, (Filing No. 7-6 at 2; Filing No. 7-6 at 6.) Her applications were initially denied on December 22, 2014, (Filing No. 7-4 at 4; Filing No. 7-4 at 13), and upon reconsideration on March 17, 2015, (Filing No. 7-4 at 24; Filing No. 7-4 at 31). Administrative Law Judge Belinda Brown (the “ALJ”) conducted a hearing on January 24, 2017, at which Cheryl M., represented by counsel, and a vocational expert, Matthew Lampley, appeared and testified. (Filing No. 7-2 at 43-63.) The ALJ issued a decision on March 27, 2017, concluding that Cheryl M. was not entitled to receive DIB or SSI. (Filing No. 7-2 at 25.) The Appeals Council denied review on March 15, 2018. (Filing No. 7-2 at 2.) On May 3, 2018, Cheryl M. timely filed this civil action, asking the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final decision of the Commissioner denying her benefits. (Filing No. 1.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under the Act, a claimant may be entitled to benefits only after she establishes that she is disabled. Disability is defined as the “inability 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). To be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled despite her medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i).[2] At step two, if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment that also meets the durational requirement, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelve-month duration requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

         If the claimant's impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the impairments on the Listing of Impairments, then her residual functional capacity will be assessed and used for the fourth and fifth steps. Residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is the “maximum that a claimant can still do despite [her] mental and physical limitations.” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 675-76 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). At the fifth and final step, it must be determined whether the claimant can perform any other work, given her RFC and considering her age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). The claimant is not disabled if she can perform any other work in the relevant economy.

         The combined effect of all the impairments of the claimant shall be considered throughout the disability determination process. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B). The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps; it then shifts to the Commissioner for the fifth step. Young v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992).

         When an applicant appeals an adverse benefits decision, this Court's role is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). Because the ALJ “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft, 539 F.3d at 678, this Court must accord the ALJ's credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong.” Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

         If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits “is appropriate only where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).

         III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Cheryl M. was 50 years of age at the time she applied for benefits, (Filing No. 7-5 at 2) alleging she could no longer work due to fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome in both arms, arthritis, and spinal stenosis. (Filing No. 7-6 at 68.) She has completed high school and previously worked in sales, retail, and as a receptionist. (Filing No. 7-6 at 7.)[3]

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) and ultimately concluded that Cheryl M. was not disabled. (Filing No. 7-2 at 36.) The ALJ found that Cheryl M. last met the insured status requirements of the Act through September 30, 2014 (the date last insured or “DLI”).[4] (Filing No. 7-2 at 30.) At step one, the ALJ found that Cheryl M. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 15, 2012, the amended onset date.[5]Id. At step two, the ALJ found that she had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, degenerative joint disease of the bilateral hips, and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Cheryl M. did ...


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