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Henry v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

August 8, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff 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].[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.

         I. FACTS

         Ms. 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.

         Ms. 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.

         In 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 2017.

         Administrative 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.

         In 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 a walker.

         The ALJ 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[2] 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).


         This 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 Cir. 2008).

         In this 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).


         Disability 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 ...

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