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Karen A. R. v. Saul

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

July 26, 2019

KAREN A. R., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Doris L. Pryor, United States Magistrate Judge

          Plaintiff Karen A. R.[1] 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 of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d), 405(g). For the reasons set forth below, this Court hereby REVERSES the ALJ's decision denying the Plaintiff benefits and REMANDS this matter for further consideration.

         I. Background

         A. Procedural History

         On April 16, 2015, Karen A. R. filed for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Act, alleging her disability began on July 1, 2014. The claims were denied initially on July 24, 2015, and upon reconsideration on November 24, 2015. The Plaintiff then filed a written request for a hearing on January 4, 2016, which was granted.

         On August 17, 2017, Administrative Law Judge Gladys Whitfield conducted the hearing, where Karen and a vocational expert testified. On January 10, 2018, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Act. The Appeals Council denied Karen's request for review of this decision on May 8, 2018, making the ALJ's decision final. The Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         B. Factual Background

         Karen was born on October 4, 1962, and was 51 years old at the time of the alleged onset date in 2014. [Dkt. 6-5 at 2 (R. 174).] She completed four or more years of college. [Dkt. 6-6 at 4 (R. 196).] The Plaintiff last engaged in substantial gainful activity in 2014 when she worked as a customer service representative at a call center. [Dkt. 6-6 at 5 (R. 197).] She has past relevant work history as a general duty nurse, charge nurse, fast food worker, and customer service representative. [Dkt. 6-2 at 31 (R. 30).]

         II. Standard of Review

          To 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 economy.

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 (“RFC”) 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).

         The 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).

         In this 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. 2002).

         When an 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.

         III. ALJ's Sequential Findings

         In determining whether Karen 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, 2019, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of July 1, 2014. [Dkt. 6-2 at 18 (R. 17).]

         At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff's severe impairments to include “mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; degenerative joint disease in the knees; fibromyalgia[2]; diabetes with associated neuropathy; hypertension; heart disease with edema in the lower limbs; migraines; vertigo; and obesity.” [Dkt. 6-2 at 18 (R. 17).]

         As 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 Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a Listing, specifically considering Listing 1.02 for major joint dysfunction, Listing 1.04 for disorders of the spine, Listing 9.00 for diabetes, Listing 11.14 for neuropathy, Listing 4.00 for hypertension, Listings 4.02, 4.02, 4.11, and 4.12 for heart disease with edema in the lower limbs, Listing 11.02 for migraine headaches, Listing 2.07 for vertigo, and Listings 1.00Q and 4.00I for obesity under Ruling 02-1p. [Dkt. 6-2 at 22-24 (R. at 21-23).]

         At the fourth step of the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ weighed the medical evidence, the vocational expert's testimony, and Karen's testimony and work history, and determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform ...

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