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Joe B. v. Berryhill

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

June 7, 2019

JOE B., Plaintiff,



         Joe B. requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). See42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423. For the reasons set forth below, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the District Judge AFFIRM the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. Background

         Joe B. filed an application for DIB on February 28, 2014 alleging an onset of disability on February 22, 2013. [Dkt. 5-7 at 4]. Joe B. alleges disability due to severe medical impairments of diabetes mellitus, hypertension, aortic stenosis, stroke syndrome with a history of a seizure, obstructive sleep apnea, and periodic limb movement disorder.[1] [Dkt. 5-2 at 35-36].

         Plaintiff's claim was initially denied on September 12, 2014 and again on November 21, 2014 upon reconsideration. [Dkt. 5-4 at 2, 13]. Plaintiff filed a timely written request for hearing on December 28, 2014. [Dkt. 5-5 at 22]. A hearing was held on May 23, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge Belinda J. Brown (“ALJ”). [Dkt. 5-3 at 23]. The ALJ issued a decision on June 28, 2016, concluding that Joe B. was not entitled to receive DIB. [Dkt. 5-4 at 25-39]. After Plaintiff's request for a review of the hearing decision, the Appeals Council remanded his claim. [Dkt. 5-4 at 44-46]. A second hearing was held on September 5, 2017, where the Plaintiff appeared and testified. [Dkt. 5-2 at 31-51]. Testimony was heard from both medical expert, Dr. Pella, and vocational expert, Ms. Franklin. [Dkt. 5-2 at 34-50]. The ALJ rendered a decision on December 29, 2017 denying Plaintiff's claim. [Dkt. 5-2 at 11-25]. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision for purposes of judicial review. [Dkt. 5-2 at 2-4]. On August 24, 2018, Joe B. filed a timely Complaint with this Court asking the Court to review the denial of benefits according to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). [See Dkt. 1].

         II. Legal Standard

         To be eligible for DIB, a claimant must have a disability pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423. 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 determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner, as represented by the ALJ, employs a five-step sequential analysis: (1) if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled; (2) if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment, one that significantly limits his ability to perform basic work activities, he is not disabled; (3) if the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment appearing in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. p. 404, subpart P, App. 1, the claimant is disabled; (4) if the claimant is not found to be disabled at step three and he is able to perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled; and (5) if the claimant is not found to be disabled at step three and cannot perform his past relevant work but he can perform certain other available work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (2012). Before continuing to step four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), by evaluating “all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that were not severe.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009).

         The ALJ's findings of fact are conclusive and must be upheld by this Court “so long as substantial evidence supports them and no error of law occurred.” Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2007). This Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgement for that of the ALJ but may only determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion. Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing Schmidt v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 970, 972 (7th Cir. 2000)); Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007)). 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). 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.Because the ALJ “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008), this Court must accord the ALJ's credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong.” Prochsaka v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006). While the ALJ must base her decision on all of the relevant evidence, Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994), and must “provide some glimpse into [her] reasoning” to “build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [her] conclusion, ” she need not “address every piece of evidence or testimony.” Dixon, 270 F.3d at 1176.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ first determined that Joe B. did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period at issue, from February 22, 2013 through December 31, 2014. [Dkt. 5-2 at 14]. At step two, in determining whether Joe B. has a medically determinable impairment that is severe or a combination of impairments classified as severe, the ALJ determined that Joe B. has “diabetes mellitus; hypertension; aortic stenosis; stroke syndrome with history of a seizure; obstructive sleep apnea; and periodic limb movement disorder.” [Dkt. 5-2 at 14].

         The ALJ determined that “the clinical findings fail to demonstrate a severe mental impairment.” [Dkt. 5-2 at 14]. In making this determination, the ALJ took into consideration Claimant's treatment history, the clinical findings, the opinions of the State agency psychological consultants, and the four broad functional areas set out in the disability regulations for evaluating mental disorders (known as the “paragraph B” criteria.) [Dkt. 5-2 at 15]. The ALJ looked to Claimant's history of polysubstance abuse, however, Claimant reported no ongoing substance abuse after 2007, well before the alleged onset date. [Dkt. 5-2 at 14]. Claimant also has a history of depression and claims the depression medication caused drowsiness. [Dkt. 5-2 at 14]. However, the treating source records from the relevant time period show no documentation of the alleged side effects. [Dkt. 5-2 at 14]. The ALJ took these considerations into account to determine that “the claimant's treatment history and prior reports fail to demonstrate a severe mental impairment during the relevant time period.” [Dkt. 5-2 at 14].

         The ALJ then considered the clinical findings. These findings indicate that, at most, the claimant displayed mood and affective disturbance. [Dkt. 5-2 at 14]. Although Claimant had difficulty with Serial 3's, he answered mathematical questions and “demonstrated intact memory, fund of knowledge, insight, and judgment.” [Dkt. 5-2 at 14]. Based on the clinical findings, the ALJ determined that Claimant's mental impairments failed to result in more than minimal symptoms or work-related functional limitations. [Dkt. 5-2 at 14]. After considering the clinical findings, the ALJ looked to the State agency psychological consultant's opinions. The psychological experts were able to actually examine Claimant during the relevant time period and determined Claimant was “likely able to perform most any job that might be offered to him.” [Dkt. 5-2 at 14]. The ALJ gave these opinions great weight because of the consultant's psychological expertise and because their opinions were well supported by evidence. Therefore, the ALJ felt confident in her determination that Claimant's mental impairments were non-severe because it was consistent with the findings of the State agency psychological consultants. [Dkt. 5-2 at 14-15].

         The ALJ considered the four broad functional areas set out in the disability regulations for evaluating mental disorders, known as “paragraph B” criteria, to come to this conclusion of non-severe mental impairments. [Dkt. 5-2 at 15]. Claimant had mild limitation in understanding, remembering, or applying information, as demonstrated by his answering of mathematical questions, intact memory, fund of knowledge, insight, and judgment. Claimant also had mild limitation when interacting with others, as articulated by both the Claimant and his wife. [Dkt. 5-2 at 15]. For the third broad functional area, the ALJ found Claimant had mild limitation in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace. [Dkt. 5-2 at 15]. Although Claimant reports an attention span of only an hour, he is able to finish tasks and has no problem following instructions. [Dkt. 5-2 at 15]. “Overall, clinical findings from the relevant time period fail to document evidence of cognitive deficits, memory impairment, or decreased concentration/attention.” [Dkt. 5-2 at 15]. Therefore, the ALJ determined Claimant had mild limitation in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace. The fourth broad functional area in “paragraph B” is adapting or managing oneself. Based on the facts that Claimant was able to care for his own personal needs while also assisting in caring for pets, he prepared simple food items, spent three hours a week mowing the yard, drove a car without ...

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