United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division
KAREN A. R., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
ORDER ON COMPLAINT FOR JUDICIAL REVIEW
L. Pryor, United States Magistrate Judge
Plaintiff Karen A. R. 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.
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.
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).
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).]
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 (“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.
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 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).]
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; diabetes with associated neuropathy;
hypertension; heart disease with edema in the lower limbs;
migraines; vertigo; and obesity.” [Dkt. 6-2 at 18 (R.
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).]
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