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Zuniga v. Berryhill

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

July 2, 2019

KHRISTINA ZUNIGA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          HOLLY A. BRADY JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff's appeal of the Social Security Administration's Decision entered on September 4, 2015 (the “Decision”), denying Plaintiff Khristina Zuniga's (“Zuniga”) application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). Zuniga filed her Brief (ECF No. 20) on January 18, 2018. Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), filed her Memorandum in Support of Commissioner's Decision (ECF No. 23) on March 29, 2018. Zuniga filed her Reply Brief (ECF No. 28) on May 29, 2018. This matter is now ripe for determination.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Zuniga filed her application for SSI on July 8, 2013. The application was denied on October 3, 2013. Zuniga filed her Request for Reconsideration on or about November 5, 2013. That Request was denied on December 17, 2013. A Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge was filed on February 12, 2014. That hearing was conducted on July 23, 2015. On September 4, 2015, the ALJ entered the Decision.

         Zuniga filed her Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order on October 19, 2015. The Appeals Council denied the Request for Review on April 10, 2017. This constituted the final decision of the Commissioner. Zuniga timely filed her Complaint with this Court on June 2, 2017.

         ALJ'S FINDINGS [1]

         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. § 1382c(a)(3)(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 also any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The first step is to determine whether the claimant no longer engages in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). Id. The ALJ determined that Zuniga had not engaged in SGA since April 23, 2013.

         In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting her ability to do basic work activities under § 416.920(c). The ALJ determined that Zuniga had the following severe impairments: intracranial injury; organic mental disorder (chronic brain syndrome); vertigo; affective disorder; anxiety disorder; obesity; and ataxia.

         Step three requires the ALJ to “consider the medical severity of [the] impairment” to determine whether the impairment “meets or equals one of the [the] listings in appendix 1 . . . .” § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant's impairment(s), considered singly or in combination with other impairments, rise to this level, there is a presumption of disability “without considering [the claimant's] age, education, and work experience.” § 416.920(d). But, if the impairment(s), either individually or in combination, fall short, the ALJ must proceed to step four and examine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (RFC)-the types of things he can still do, despite his limitations-to determine whether he can perform “past relevant work” (§ 416.920(a)(4)(iv)), or whether the claimant can “make an adjustment to other work” given the claimant's “age, education, and work experience” (§ 416.920(a)(4)(v)).

         The ALJ determined that Zuniga did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ then determined that Zuniga had the RFC to perform sedentary work, including occasionally using stairs or ramps, balancing, stooping, or kneeling. Zuniga was not to use ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, crouch or crawl. Zuniga was further to avoid exposure to unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, vibration or uneven or slippery surfaces. The ALJ determined that Zuniga was able to work in an environment with no more than moderate noise level and lighting limited to normal office lighting. Zuniga was further limited to a low stress job, defined as having only occasional decision making and very few changes in the work setting such that what the individual does on one day will be done on the next day. Finally, the ALJ determined that Zuniga could occasionally be around coworkers during the day but should not be involved in tandem tasks, and was capable of only occasional interaction with the public.

         Given Zuniga's RFC, the ALJ determined that Zuniga was unable to perform any past relevant work. However, the ALJ determined that, considering Zuniga's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Zuniga could perform. Therefore, the ALJ determined that Zuniga was not disabled.

         LEGAL DISCUSSION

         A. Stand ...


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