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Andrea B. v. Saul

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

August 7, 2019

ANDREA B., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Defendant.



         This matter was referred to the Magistrate Judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b) for a Report and Recommendation as to its appropriate disposition. (Docket No. 14). Plaintiff Andrea B.[1] seeks judicial review of the Social Security Administration's final decision deeming her ineligible for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). The matter is fully briefed with the reply period passing without filing from Plaintiff. (Docket No. 7; Docket No. 13). It is recommended that the District Judge AFFIRM the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration finding that Plaintiff Andrea B. is not disabled.


         Plaintiff, Andrea B., protectively filed her application for Title II on September 22, 2014, for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning August 6, 2014. (Docket No. 5-2 at ECF p. 12). Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Docket No. 5-2 at ECF p. 12; Docket No. 5-6 at ECF p. 3; Docket No. 5-6 at ECF p. 9). Administrate Law Judge (ALJ) Elias Xenos held a hearing on March 8, 2017, at which Andrea B., represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (VE) Luann Castellana, appeared and testified. (Docket No. 5-2 at ECF p. 12).

         After the hearing, on March 30, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Docket No. 5-2 at ECF pp. 12-24). On March 10, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review, thereby rendering it the agency's final decision for purposes of judicial review. (Docket No. 5-2 at ECF pp. 2-5). On May 8, 2018, Andrea B. timely filed this civil action, asking the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final decision of the Deputy Commissioner denying her benefits.

         Standard for Proving Disability

         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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Plaintiff is disabled if her impairments are of such severity that she is not able to perform the work she previously engaged in and, if 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). 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.

         Step one asks if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if she is, then she is not disabled. Step two asks whether the claimant's impairments, singly or in combination, are severe. If they are not, then she is not disabled. A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). The third step is an analysis of whether the claimant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or medically 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). The Listings includes 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 the most similarly listed impairment, then the claimant is presumptively disabled and qualifies for benefits. Sims v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 424, 428 (7th Cir. 2002).

         If the claimant's impairments do not satisfy a listing, then her residual functional capacity (RFC) is determined for purposes of steps four and five. RFC is a claimant's ability to do work on a regular and continuing basis despite her impairment-related physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. At the fourth step, if the claimant has the RFC to perform her past relevant work, then she is not disabled. The fifth step asks whether there is work in the relevant economy that the claimant can perform, based on her vocational profile (age, work experience, and education) and her RFC. If so, then she is not disabled.

         The individual claiming disability bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). If the claimant meets that burden, then the Commissioner has the burden at step five to show that work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, given her age, education, work experience, and functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2); Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004).

         Standard for Review of the ALJ's Decision

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's (or ALJ's) factual findings is deferential. This Court must affirm the ALJ's decision unless it lacks the support of substantial evidence or rests upon a legal error. See, e.g., Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence means evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). The ALJ- not the Court-holds discretion to weigh evidence, resolve material conflicts, make independent factual findings, and decide questions of credibility. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 399- 400 (1971). Accordingly, the Court may not reevaluate facts, reweigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for the ALJ's. See Butera v. Apfel, 173 F.3d 1049, 1055 (7th Cir. 1999).

         The ALJ is required to articulate 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. The ALJ 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 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).


         I. The ALJ's Sequential Findings

         Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018. (Docket No. 5-2 at ECF p. 14). She had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 6, 2014, the alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (Id.).

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) and ultimately concluded that Andrea B. was not disabled. (Docket No. 5-2 at ECF p. 24). At step one, the ALJ found that Andrea B. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity.[2] (Docket No. 5-2 at ECF p. 14). At step two, the ALJ found that Andrea B. had the following severe impairments:

[O]steoarthritis of the bilateral knees, status post left midfoot nonunion repair, status post right knee arthroplasty, bilateral knee efussion, chronic low back pain with left-sided sciatica, and lumbar spondylosis.

(Docket No. 5-2 at ECF p. 14). At step three, the ALJ found that Andrea B. did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments-specifically considering Listings 1.02, 1.03, 1.04(A), 1.04(B), and 1.04(C). (Docket No. 5-2 at ...

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