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Michael G. v. Saul

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, New Albany Division

July 29, 2019

MICHAEL G., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Michael G.[1] requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “SSA”), denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). For the following reasons, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.


         On February 20, 2014, Michael G. filed an application for SSI, alleging a disability onset date of April 13, 2012. (Filing No. 13-2 at 12.) His application was initially denied on August 11, 2015, (Filing No. 13-4 at 2), and upon reconsideration on October 15, 2015, (Filing No. 13-4 at 9). Administrative Law Judge William C. Zuber (the “ALJ”) conducted a hearing on September 20, 2017, at which Michael G., unrepresented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”), appeared and testified. (Filing No. 13-2 at 43-77.) The ALJ issued a decision on November 30, 2017, concluding that Michael G. was not entitled to receive benefits. (Filing No. 13-2 at 9.) The Appeals Council denied review on February 22, 2018. (Filing No. 13-2 at 2.) On March 7, 2018, Michael G. timely filed this civil action, asking the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final decision of the Commissioner denying his benefits. (Filing No. 1.)


         Under the Social Security Act, a claimant may be entitled to benefits only after he establishes that he is disabled. 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. § 423(d)(1)(A). To be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that his physical or mental limitations prevent him from doing not only his previous work but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering his age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled despite his medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment that also meets the durational requirement, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelve-month duration requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         If the claimant's impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the impairments on the Listing of Impairments, then his residual functional capacity will be assessed and used for the fourth and fifth steps. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv)-(v). Residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is the “maximum that a claimant can still do despite his mental and physical limitations.” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 675-76 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)[2]; Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At the fifth and final step, it must be determined whether the claimant can perform any other work, given his RFC and considering his age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). The claimant is not disabled if he can perform any other work in the relevant economy.

         The combined effect of all the impairments of the claimant shall be considered throughout the disability determination process. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B). The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps; it then shifts to the Commissioner for the fifth step. Young v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992).

         When an applicant appeals an adverse benefits decision, this Court's role is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). Because the ALJ “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft, 539 F.3d at 678, this Court must accord the ALJ's credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong.” Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

         If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits “is appropriate only where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).


         Michael G. was 40 years of age at the time he filed the application under review, (Filing No. 13-5 at 2), alleging he could no longer work due to bipolar disorder, heart problems, diabetes, depression, anxiety, back problems, and neuropathy in his legs and feet, (Filing No. 13-6 at 5). He has completed the tenth grade, with a history of special education, and previously worked in manual labor and as a tow truck driver. (Filing No. 13-6 at 6.)[3]

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) and ultimately concluded that Michael G. was not disabled. (Filing No. 13-2 at 33.) At step one, the ALJ found that Michael G. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity[4] since February 20, 2014, the application date.[5] (Filing No. 13-2 at 15.) At step two, the ALJ found that he had the following severe impairments: degenerative changes of the lumbar spine status post fusion surgery, obesity, diabetes mellitus type II with peripheral neuropathy, depression, anxiety, and borderline intellectual functioning. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Michael G. did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (Filing No. 13-2 at 16.) After step three but before step four, the ALJ concluded:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b), except: the claimant requires allowance of an option to sit or stand every 30-45 minutes but is able to stand for 30-45 minutes at a time and sit for 30-45 minutes at a time; the claimant is able to use his hands frequently for handling, grasping, fingering and feeling, perform occasional stooping, crouching, kneeling, crawling and climbing of ramps and stairs, and use his feet occasionally to operate foot controls but is never able to climb ladders, ropes or scaffolding; the claimant is able to sustain concentration, persistent and pace for periods of 2 hours at a time to perform work involving simple, routine, 1-3 step tasks subject to any changes in work routine or environment being rare and gradually introduced, having occasional contact with supervisors and co-workers but no contact with the general public, no fast-paced quota-driven tasks, and no work tasks that require reading.

(Filing No. 13-2 at 21.) At step four, the ALJ concluded that Michael G. did not have any past relevant work to evaluate. (Filing No. 13-2 at 32.) At step five, the ALJ concluded, with the assistance of the VE's testimony and considering Michael G.'s RFC, age, education, and past work, that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that he could have performed through the date of the decision in representative occupations such as a hand polisher, trimmer, and garment sorter. (Filing No. 13-2 at 32-33.)


         Michael G. proceeds with his appeal without representation and has submitted various documents with the Court, including motions, letters of support from his mother-in-law, letters from his treating providers, medical records, his wife's Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) certification to her employer, and an incomplete notice concerning a state benefit determination. (See Filing No. 22-1; Filing No. 24-1; Filing No. 28-1; Filing No. 33-1; Filing No. 37; Filing No. 38; Filing No. 39; Filing No. 40; Filing No. 41; Filing No. 42; Filing No. 43.) Because Michael G. proceeds pro se in this action, the Court will liberally construe his pleadings and consider any issues raised by the submitted documents to the extent the Court finds it necessary to resolve the appeal. See, e.g., Alvarado v. Litscher, 267 F.3d 648, 651 (7th Cir. 2001).

         A. Previ ...

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