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Jackie L. H v. Saul

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

August 14, 2019

JACKIE L. H.[1], Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security, Administration, 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. 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.


         Jackie 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 Commissioner's decision.

         Jackie 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 impairments.

         The 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.

         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. § 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.

         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 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. 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 age, work experience, and education (which are not considered at step four), 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. 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. 2001).

         The ALJ 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).


         I. The ALJ's Sequential Findings

         Jackie 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).

         At step 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[2] 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.

         For the 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, ”[3] 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).

         Based 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.

         II. Jackie's Assertions of Error

         Jackie 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 ...

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