United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, New Albany Division
JACKIE L. H., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security, Administration, Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON COMPLAINT FOR JUDICIAL
McVICKER LYNCH UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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. As
addressed below, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the
District Judge REVERSE AND REMAND the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration that
plaintiff Jackie H. is not disabled.
applied in March 2013 for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB)
under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging that she
has been disabled since October 26, 2012. After a hearing, a
final decision was issued finding that Jackie had become
disabled as of December 1, 2014 (when her age category
changed under the “grids”), but she was not
disabled between her alleged onset date and December 1, 2014.
Jackie filed a complaint for judicial review of the
non-favorable aspect of the decision and on joint motion by
her and the Commissioner, the court reversed and remanded on
March 27, 2017. The Appeals Council then issued its remand
order (R. 466) on May 23, 2017, affirming the determination
that Jackie was disabled as of December 1, 2014, but
remanding as to the period before December 1. A new
administrative hearing was held on November 14, 2017. On
January 15, 2018, administrative law judge Belinda J. Brown
issued her decision finding that Jackie was not disabled
between October 26, 2012, and December 1, 2014. The Appeals
Council denied review, rendering the ALJ's decision for
the Commissioner final. Jackie timely filed this civil action
under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the
contends the Commissioner's decision must be reversed and
remanded because the ALJ (1) did not properly evaluate the
opinions of a consultative, examining physician, (2) made a
patently wrong credibility determination, and (3) did not
properly evaluate the severity of her gastrointestinal
court will first describe the legal framework for analyzing
disability claims and the court's standard of review and
then address Jackie's specific assertions of error.
for Proving Disability
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). Jackie 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. § 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.
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 Listing of Impairments
includes medical conditions defined by criteria that the SSA
has predetermined 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 similar listed impairment, then the claimant is
presumptively disabled and qualifies for benefits. Sims
v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 424, 428 (7th Cir.
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
age, work experience, and education (which are not considered
at step four), and her RFC; if so, then she is not disabled.
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).
for Review of the ALJ's Decision
review of the Commissioner's (or ALJ's) factual
findings is deferential. A court must affirm if no error of
law occurred and if the findings are supported by substantial
evidence. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176
(7thCir. 2001). Substantial evidence means
evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to
support a conclusion. Id. The standard demands more
than a scintilla of evidentiary support, but it does not
demand a preponderance of the evidence. Wood v.
Thompson, 246 F.3d 1026, 1029 (7th Cir.
is required to articulate a minimal, but legitimate,
justification for her 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 her decision, but she
cannot ignore a line of evidence that undermines the
conclusions she made, and she must trace the path of his
reasoning and connect the evidence to her findings and
conclusions. Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 592
(7thCir. 2012); Clifford v. Apfel, 227
F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).
The ALJ's Sequential Findings
was born in 1959 and was 52 years old at the alleged onset of
her disability in October 2012. She traces her onset date to
when she was fired from her job as a machine operator
(operating a lathe), a job that required constant standing.
Jackie testified that her firing was due to excessive
absences caused by her own health problems and the need to
take care of her mother. (R. 426). She testified that she had
begun having trouble lifting because of shoulder problems and
pain, that her back and feet were hurting, and that stomach
issues caused pain and required frequent and lengthy bathroom
breaks. (R. 427-28).
one, the ALJ found that Jackie had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since her alleged onset date in October
2012. At step two, she determined that Jackie's severe
impairments were mild facet hypertrophy of the lower
lumbar spine, mild acromioclavicular changes of the right
shoulder, midtarsal sprain of the left foot with residual
pain, and obesity. The ALJ decided that Jackie's
gastrointestinal problems (chronic diarrhea, nausea,
vomiting, and abdominal pain) were not severe. She found at
step three that no listings were met or medically equaled.
RFC, the ALJ decided that between her alleged onset date and
December 1, 2014, Jackie was capable of a range of light work
“as defined in the regulations, ” so long as she
had a sit/stand option during which she could, throughout the
work day, alternatively be on her feet at least 30 minutes at
a time and then sit for 5 minutes. She also imposed certain
environmental restrictions and postural restrictions,
including restricting Jackie to only occasionally reaching
overhead with her right arm. (R. 412).
on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found at
step four that Jackie could not have performed her past
relevant work, which required medium-level exertion. At step
five, also based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ decided
that Jackie had been capable of performing the work demands
of the jobs of collator operator, router, and survey worker,
and that these jobs existed in significant numbers in the
national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ determined at step
five that Jackie was not disabled between October 2012 and
December 1, 2014.
Jackie's Assertions of Error
makes three arguments for remand. First, she contends that
the ALJ did not properly evaluate the opinions of a
consultative physician, Dr. Theodora Saddoris, who examined
Jackie in May 2013 and in October 2013. Second, she contends
that the ALJ's evaluation of her credibility was patently
wrong. Third, she contends that the ALJ improperly evaluated
the severity of her ...