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Derry v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 24, 2019

ROBERT L. DERRY, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of SSA, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Susan Collins, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Robert L. Derry appeals to the district court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).[1] (DE 1). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be AFFIRMED.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Derry applied for DIB and SSI in April 2013, alleging disability as of May 3, 2012. (DE 10 Administrative Record (“AR”) 186-88, 194-99). Derry was last insured for DIB on March 31, 2017 (AR 1063), and therefore, he must establish that he was disabled as of that date with respect to his DIB claim. See Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1154 (7th Cir. 1997) (explaining that a claimant must establish that he was disabled as of his date last insured in order to recover DIB benefits). Derry's application was denied on initial consideration and on reconsideration. (AR 137-52).

         A hearing was held on February 14, 2014, before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), ALJ Maryann S. Bright (“ALJ Bright”), at which Derry, who appeared pro se, and a vocational expert testified. (AR 59-90). On May 14, 2014, ALJ Bright rendered an unfavorable decision to Derry, concluding that he was not disabled because despite the limitations caused by his impairments he could perform a significant number of unskilled, medium-exertional jobs in the economy. (AR 43-53). The Appeals Council denied Derry's request for review (AR 1-3), at which point ALJ Bright's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         On December 23, 2015, Derry filed a civil action in this Court, and on February 28, 2017, the Court issued an Opinion and Order remanding the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings. (AR 886-902). Pursuant to the Court's Order, the Appeals Council remanded the case to an ALJ on June 12, 2017. (AR 905). On remand, a hearing was held before ALJ Terry Miller (“ALJ Miller”) on December 12, 2017, at which Derry, who was represented by counsel; Derry's father; Dr. Nathan Strahl, a medical expert; and Marie Barhydt, a vocational expert, testified. (AR 731-805). On February 8, 2018, ALJ Miller rendered another unfavorable decision to Derry, concluding that he was not disabled because despite the limitations caused by his impairments he could perform a significant number of unskilled, light-exertional jobs in the economy. (AR 705-22). Derry did not seek review of the decision by the Appeals Council, and ALJ Miller's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Derry filed a complaint with this Court on April 12, 2018, seeking relief from the Commissioner's final decision. (DE 1). In this appeal, Derry argues that ALJ Miller erred by: (1) improperly discounting the opinion of Catherine Duchovic, his treating psychiatric nurse practitioner; and (2) failing to evaluate a one-page affidavit from Garrett Hill, a former employer. (DE 18 at 9-14).

         At the time of ALJ Miller's decision, Derry was 38 years old (AR 186, 722); had a high school education (AR 241); and had past work experience as a janitor, fast food worker, drill press operator, maintenance mechanic, sales clerk, and delivery driver (AR 1150). Derry alleges disability due to the following impairments: obesity, chronic left knee pain due to a left knee injury/left knee chondrocalcinosis, bipolar I disorder, social anxiety disorder, and social phobia. (DE 18 at 2). Derry does not challenge the findings of ALJ Miller in regard to his physical residual functional capacity (“RFC”) (DE 18 at 9-14); rather, his arguments center on the ALJ's consideration of his mental impairments.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Section 405(g) of the Act grants this Court “the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner], with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court's task is limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, which means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). The decision will be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ applied an erroneous legal standard. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted).

         To determine if substantial evidence exists, the Court reviews the entire administrative record but does not reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Id. Rather, if the findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. Jens v. Barnhart, 347 F.3d 209, 212 (7th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). “In other words, so long as, in light of all the evidence, reasonable minds could differ concerning whether [the claimant] is disabled, we must affirm the ALJ's decision denying benefits.” Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 978 (7th Cir. 1996).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Law

         Under the Act, a claimant is entitled to DIB or SSI if he establishes an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to . . . last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1), 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The Commissioner evaluates disability claims pursuant to a five-step evaluation process, requiring consideration of the following issues, in sequence: (1) whether the claimant is currently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the Commissioner, see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1; (4) whether the claimant is unable to perform his past work; and (5) whether the claimant is incapable of performing work in the national economy.[2] See Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. An affirmative answer leads either to the next step or, on steps three and five, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). A negative answer at any point other than step three stops the inquiry and leads to a finding that the claimant is not disabled. Id. (citation omitted). The burden of proof lies with the claimant at every step except the fifth, where it shifts to the Commissioner. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868 (citation omitted).

         B. The ...


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