United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
OPINION AND ORDER
Michelle Renae Henry alleges that she has been disabled since
September 15, 2013. She filed a complaint in this Court
seeking review of the final decision of the Defendant, the
Commissioner of Social Security, denying her application for
social security disability benefits [DE 1]. The matter is
briefed and ripe for decision [DE 16; DE 22; DE 25]. For the
reasons stated below, the Court remands this matter to the
Commissioner for further proceedings.
Henry filed an application for disability insurance benefits
in 2014, alleging that degenerative disc disease and other
back problems, numbness in her extremities, arthritis,
botched hernia surgeries, bowel obstructions, and implanted
bladder and rectal slings prevented her from working since
September 15, 2013. Before ceasing work, Ms. Henry was
employed for twelve years as a full-time hotel clerk and for
some time as a part-time housekeeper and cashier for various
gas stations and convenience stores.
Henry's medical history is extensive. She underwent eight
surgeries from 1994 to 2014 in order to repair hernias and
resulting complications. She also underwent procedures to
resection her bowels in 2008 and install a bladder sling in
2009. Her back problems led her to undergo a discectomy and
fusion procedure in 2003. Despite physical therapy,
chiropractor visits, and ongoing medical treatment, her lower
back pain continued to worsen in 2012 and became marked by
shooting pain in her right leg. Additionally, Ms. Henry has
been diagnosed by her primary care physician, Dr. John Kelly,
with obesity, diabetes mellitus, lumbar disk degeneration,
and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
(“COPD”). She reports daily headaches, fatigue,
vertigo, the inability to lift more than ten pounds, and
incontinence. In 2013, her pain and other symptoms made it so
difficult for her to sit, stand, or walk for extended periods
of time that she ceased working.
October and November 2014, state agents opined that Ms. Henry
suffered from degenerative disc disease but that the
impairment was non-severe. After these evaluations, Ms. Henry
began seeing a physical rehabilitation specialist, Dr.
Sridhar Vallabhaneni, who diagnosed her with lumbar spinal
stenosis, lumbar radiculopathy, and low back pain. On
examination, he documented that she demonstrated an abnormal
range of motion in her back and an antalgic gait. He noted
that her MRI revealed a pathology at ¶ 5/S1 which
“correlate[d] with her symptoms.” She then
completed a course of physical therapy without much result.
She was referred for a surgical consultation in February
Law Judge Kevin Plunkett (“ALJ”) held a hearing
on July 21, 2017, during which Ms. Henry and vocational
expert Stephanie Archer (“VE”) testified. Ms.
Henry explained that she suffers from constant pain in her
right leg which makes it difficult for her to stand and walk.
She must stop and rest when moving from her living room to
the bathroom. The chronic pain often rises along her spine to
her head, causing debilitating headaches as often as four
times a day; she needs to lie down in a dark place to relieve
the headaches. She also suffers from vertigo on a weekly
basis which lasts for about an hour at a time. In response,
she began using a cane in 2016 and was prescribed a seated
walker and motorized scooter. Sitting longer than fifteen
minutes causes her discomfort and she must then stand.
Lifting so much as a gallon of milk causes her hands to shake
and oftentimes, she drops things. Further complicating
matters are her respiratory attacks which require the daily
use of a rescue inhaler, diabetes which remains uncontrolled
with medication, and stomach pain/bowel issues caused by
multiple bowel surgeries. Ms. Henry testified that her
ailments prevent her from performing most household chores,
preparing meals, or dressing herself. She leaves the house
only for medical visits, partly due to her mobility issues
and partly due to her anxiety about falling. She's been
seen in the emergency room numerous times because of falling.
Even at home, she has only accessed the first floor of her
house since 2016.
response to hypothetical questions posed by the ALJ, the VE
testified that a person of Ms. Henry's age and background
but limited to light work (and a few other exertional
limitations) could perform work as a hotel clerk, either as
Ms. Henry once performed the job or as generally performed.
Per the VE, that person could also perform work as a front
desk receptionist, cashier, and sales attendant. If further
limited to sedentary work, then such a person could work as a
C.O.D. clerk, scheduling clerk, or lost charge card clerk.
The VE testified that in order to be employable, a person
cannot be off-task more than five percent of the time or
absent more than one day per month. Additionally, the VE
indicated that even the sedentary jobs identified would
require an employee to be physically capable of gripping with
both hands (at least occasionally) and moving around without
issued a decision on August 9, 2017, denying Ms. Henry
disability benefits and finding her not disabled under the
Social Security Act because she had the residual functional
capacity to perform light work including her past
work as a front desk clerk. The ALJ opined that for purposes
of the step 5 analysis, Ms. Henry could also perform light
work as a front desk receptionist, cashier, and sales
attendant. On May 15, 2018, the Appeals Council denied her
request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final
determination of the Commissioner. Schomas v.
Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). Ms. Henry
seeks review of the Commissioner's decision, thereby
invoking this Court's jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Court will affirm the Commissioner's findings of fact and
denial of disability benefits if they are supported by
substantial evidence. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668,
673 (7th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence consists of
“such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).
This evidence must be “more than a scintilla but may be
less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue,
478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Thus, even if
“reasonable minds could differ” about the
disability status of the claimant, the Court must affirm the
Commissioner's decision as long as it is adequately
supported. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th
substantial-evidence determination, the Court considers the
entire administrative record but does not reweigh evidence,
resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or
substitute the Court's own judgment for that of the
Commissioner. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336
F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Nevertheless, the Court
conducts a “critical review of the evidence”
before affirming the Commissioner's decision.
Id. An ALJ must evaluate both the evidence favoring
the claimant as well as the evidence favoring the claim's
rejection and may not ignore an entire line of evidence that
is contrary to the ALJ's findings. Zurawski v.
Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 888 (7th Cir. 2001). Consequently,
an ALJ's decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary
support or an adequate discussion of the issues.
Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539. Ultimately, while the ALJ is
not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony
presented, the ALJ must provide a “logical
bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions.
Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).
benefits are available only to those individuals who can
establish disability under the terms of the Social Security
Act. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir.
1998). Specifically, the claimant must be 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
12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Social
Security regulations create a ...