United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division
L. Pryor United States Magistrate Judge
Deseray B. requests judicial review of the denial by the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner”) of her application for Social
Security Disability Insurance (“DIB”) under Title
II and for supplemental security income (“SSI”)
under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the
Act”). See 42 U.S.C. §§ 301, 416(i),
423(d), 1382c(a)(3). For the reasons set forth below, the
Court hereby REVERSES the ALJ's decision
denying the Plaintiff benefits and REMANDS
this matter for further consideration.
October 15, 2014, Deseray filed for DIB under Title II of the
Act and for SSI under Title XVI of the Act, alleging her
disability began on December 31, 2013. [Dkt. 8-6 at 66 (R.
100.] The claim was denied initially on April 23, 2015, and
upon reconsideration on October 14, 2015. [Dkt. 8-4 at 8, 13
(R. 123, 128).] The Plaintiff then filed a written request
for a hearing on November 24, 2015, which was granted. [Dkt.
8-3 at 66 (R. 100).]
April 25, 2017, Administrative Law Judge Luke Woltering (the
“ALJ”) conducted the hearing, where Deseray and a
vocational expert testified. [Id.] On July 27, 2017,
the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that the
Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Act.
[Id.] The Appeals Council denied Deseray's
request for review of this decision on February 6, 2018,
making the ALJ's decision final. [Dkt. 8-2 at 2 (R. 1).]
The Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the
Commissioner's decision. See 42 U.S.C. §
405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c).
was born on November 27, 1974, and was 39 years old at the
time of the alleged onset date in 2013. [Dkt. 8-5 at 2 (R.
192).] She received her General Education Development
(“GED”) diploma in 2002. [Id.]. She has
past relevant work history as a fast food worker, hair
stylist, home care worker, [Dkt. 8-6 at 4 (R. 221)], and
street cleaner. [Dkt. 8-3 at 75 (R. 109).]
Standard of Review
prove disability, a claimant must show she is 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A). To meet this definition, a claimant's
impairments must be of such severity that she is not able to
perform the work she previously engaged in and, based on her
age, education, and work experience, she cannot engage in any
other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in
significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(2)(A). The Social Security Administration
(“SSA”) has implemented these statutory standards
by, in part, prescribing a five-step sequential evaluation
process for determining disability. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520. The ALJ must consider whether:
(1) the claimant is presently [un]employed; (2) the claimant
has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3)
the claimant's impairment meets or equals any impairment
listed in the regulations as being so severe as to preclude
substantial gainful activity; (4) the claimant's residual
functional capacity leaves [her] unable to perform [her] past
relevant work; and (5) the claimant is unable to perform any
other work existing in significant numbers in the national
Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345,
351-52 (7th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). An affirmative
answer to each step leads either to the next step or, at
steps three and five, to a finding that the claimant is
disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Briscoe, 425
F.3d at 352. A negative answer at any point, other than step
three, terminates the inquiry and leads to a determination
that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
The claimant bears the burden of proof through step four.
Briscoe, 425 F.3d at 352. If the first four steps
are met, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five.
Id. The Commissioner must then establish that the
claimant-in light of her age, education, job experience and
residual functional capacity to work-is capable of performing
other work and that such work exists in the national economy.
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).
Court reviews the Commissioner's denial of benefits to
determine whether it was supported by substantial evidence or
is the result of an error of law. Dixon v.
Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). Evidence
is substantial when it is sufficient for a reasonable person
to conclude that the evidence supports the decision. Rice
v. Barnhart, 384 F.3d 363, 369 (7th Cir. 2004). The
standard demands more than a scintilla of evidentiary
support, but does not demand a preponderance of the evidence.
Wood v. Thompson, 246 F.3d 1026, 1029 (7th Cir.
2001). Thus, the issue before the Court is not whether
Plaintiff is disabled, but, rather, whether the ALJ's
findings were supported by substantial evidence. Diaz v.
Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 306 (7th Cir. 1995).
substantial-evidence determination, the Court must consider
the entire administrative record but not “reweigh
evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility,
or substitute our own judgment for that of the
Commissioner.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d
863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). Nevertheless, the Court must
conduct a critical review of the evidence before affirming
the Commissioner's decision, and the decision cannot
stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate
discussion of the issues. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v.
Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003); see
also Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir.
ALJ denies benefits, he must build an “accurate and
logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion, ”
Clifford, 227 F.3d at 872, articulating a minimal,
but legitimate, justification for his decision to accept or
reject specific evidence of a disability. Scheck v.
Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004). The ALJ
need not address every piece of evidence in his decision, but
he cannot ignore a line of evidence that undermines the
conclusions he made, and he must trace the path of his
reasoning and connect the evidence to his findings and
conclusions. Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 592
(7th Cir. 2012); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d at 872.
ALJ's Sequential Findings
determining whether Deseray qualified for disability benefits
under the Act, the ALJ went through the five-step analysis
required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The ALJ first
determined that the Plaintiff met the insured status
requirements of the Act through December 31, 2018 and has not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged
onset date of December 31, 2013. [Dkt. 8-3 at 68 (R. 102).]
two, the ALJ found Plaintiff's severe impairments to
include “obesity; bilateral knee osteoarthritis;
peripheral neuropathy; hypertension; cervical degenerative
disc disease; and asthma, ” along with the non-severe
impairments of “sickle cell disease; Sjoren's [sic]
Syndrome; supraventricular tachycardia; palpitations; and
testimony of severe skin issues with right leg.” [Dkt.
8-3 at 69 (R. 103).] The ALJ also found the Plaintiff's
adjustment disorder to be non-severe. [Id.]
noted above, the third step is an analysis of whether the
claimant's impairments, either singly or in combination,
meet or equal the criteria of any of the conditions in the
Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1. The Listings include medical conditions defined
by criteria that the SSA has pre-determined are disabling, so
that if a claimant meets all of the criteria for a listed
impairment or presents medical findings equal in severity to
the criteria for a listed impairment, then the claimant is
presumptively disabled and qualifies for benefits. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). At step three, the ALJ found that
the Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals a
fourth step of the five-step sequential evaluation process,
the ALJ weighed the medical evidence, the vocational
expert's testimony, and Deseray's testimony and work
history, and determined that the Plaintiff had the RFC to