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Cannon v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

July 2, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.



         Plaintiff Neal Cannon III asserts that he is disabled due to his bipolar and panic disorders. He seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying his application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner wrongfully denied him benefits and that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred by: (1) failing to give great weight to the opinion of a nurse practitioner who treated him; and (2) making a flawed subjective symptom assessment based on his daily activities.

         Defendant argues that the ALJ reasonably weighed the nurse practitioner's opinion and assessed Plaintiff's subjective statements. Defendant asserts that the ALJ's decision should be affirmed because substantial evidence supports it.


         On February 26, 2013, Plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423(d), and for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3). He alleged disability beginning January 1, 2011, which he amended to February 6, 2012, at the hearing because it aligned with the beginning of his sobriety. After a hearing on March 12, 2015, an ALJ issued a decision denying disability on April 13, 2015. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, rendering the ALJ's decision the Agency's final decision for purposes of judicial review. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Plaintiff sought review and this Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The Social Security Act establishes that the Commissioner's findings as to any fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. See Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 305 (7th Cir. 1995). The question upon judicial review of an ALJ's finding that a claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is not whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled, but whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and under the correct legal standard. See Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003); Schmidt v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 970, 972 (7th Cir. 2000). Thus, the Court will affirm the Commissioner's finding of fact and denial of disability benefits if substantial evidence supports them. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2009). Substantial evidence is defined as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Henderson v. Apfel, 179 F.3d 507, 512 (7th Cir. 1999).

         It is the ALJ's duty to weigh the evidence, resolve material conflicts, make independent findings of fact, and dispose of the case accordingly. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 399-400. The court reviews the entire record; however it does not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner by reconsidering facts, reweighing evidence, resolving conflicts in evidence, or deciding questions of credibility. See Diaz, 55 F.3d at 308. A court will “conduct a critical review of the evidence, ” considering both the evidence that supports, as well as the evidence that detracts from, 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) (internal quotations omitted).

         When an ALJ recommends the denial of benefits, the ALJ must first “provide a logical bridge between the evidence and [his] conclusions.” Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Although the ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, “as with any well-reasoned decision, the ALJ must rest its denial of benefits on adequate evidence contained in the record and must explain why contrary evidence does not persuade.” Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008). If the ALJ commits an error of law, however, reversal is required without regard to the volume of evidence in support of the factual findings. Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997).


         A. The ALJ's Decision

         Disability is defined as an 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)[1]. The claimant bears the burden of proving disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a). The claimant must establish that his impairments “are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The ALJ conducted the familiar five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 6, 2012, the alleged onset date. At step two the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairment of bipolar disorder. At step three, the ALJ considered whether Plaintiff's impairments, or combination of impairments, met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed by the Administration as being so severe that it presumptively precludes substantial gainful activity. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. The ALJ found that neither Plaintiff's impairment, nor combination of impairments, met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. With respect to Plaintiff's mental impairment, the ALJ considered his activities of daily living, social functioning, restriction in concentration, persistence, and pace, and that he had no episodes of decompensation. The ALJ also considered the “paragraph C” criteria and found that Plaintiff's medically documented history did not support a finding of disability.

         For the fourth step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC), which is an assessment of the claimant's ability to perform sustained work-related physical and mental activities in light of his impairments. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the nonexertional limitations of only simple, routine tasks with ...

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