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Richard C. v. Berryhill

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

May 29, 2019

RICHARD C., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Richard C.[1] applied for social security disability benefits, claiming that he was no longer able to work. He alleged that he became disabled around the time he fell and hurt his leg and hip, and that he experienced pain and swelling in his left leg. He also took medication for hypertension, and testified to experiencing swelling in his hands and face and blurred vision. An administrative law judge found that Mr. C. did not have any severe impairments that lasted for at least one year, so he denied Mr. C.'s claim. For the following reasons, the Court reverses that decision and remands for further proceedings.


         Mr. C. applied for social security disability benefits in January 2015. He alleged that he became disabled in December 2014, when he experienced a fall that caused swelling to his left leg, and that he had a rod in his left leg from an injury about ten years earlier. Mr. C. sought medical treatment on very few occasions, though. He visited the emergency room in December 2014 for a fall he experienced about a week earlier. He reported that he had been experiencing severe pain in his left knee and had tenderness in his tailbone. The doctor noted swelling and bruising in the leg. X-rays reflected no acute injury, but showed a healed fracture and hardware from an injury Mr. C. experienced about ten years earlier. The doctor noted that Mr. C might have had a soft tissue injury and gave him crutches, and also referred him to counseling for alcohol abuse. Mr. C. next sought medical treatment about two years later, complaining of swelling in his face and hands, which the doctors related to his hypertension and effects from his medication. He saw doctors in December 2016 and January and February 2017 about those symptoms.

         After applying for disability benefits, Mr. C. attended an examination with an agency physician, who opined that Mr. C. was limited to essentially sedentary work. Two agency reviewing physicians offered similar opinions about Mr. C.'s limitations but concluded that he was still able to perform other work. After a hearing before an administrative law judge, the ALJ denied Mr. C.'s claim. The ALJ concluded that while Mr. C. had severe impairments, those impairments did not endure for at least twelve months, so Mr. C. did not qualify as disabled. The appeals council denied review, so Mr. C. filed this action seeking review of that decision.


         Because the Appeals Council denied review, the Court evaluates the ALJ's decision as the final word of the Commissioner of Social Security. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). This Court will affirm the Commissioner's findings of fact and denial of benefits if they are supported by substantial evidence. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). This evidence must be “more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Even if “reasonable minds could differ” about the disability status of the claimant, the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision as long as it is adequately supported. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         The ALJ has the duty to weigh the evidence, resolve material conflicts, make independent findings of fact, and dispose of the case accordingly. Perales, 402 U.S. at 399-400. In evaluating the ALJ's decision, the Court considers the entire administrative record but does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute the Court's own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Nevertheless, the Court conducts a “critical review of the evidence” before affirming the Commissioner's decision. Id. An ALJ must evaluate both the evidence favoring the claimant as well as the evidence favoring the claim's rejection and may not ignore an entire line of evidence that is contrary to his or her findings. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001). The ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).


         Disability benefits are available only to those individuals who can establish disability under the terms of the Social Security Act. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998). Specifically, the claimant must be 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). The Social Security regulations create a five-step process to determine whether the claimant qualifies as disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). The steps are to be used in the following order:

1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity;
2. Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment;
3. Whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one listed in ...

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