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Barbara G. v. Saul

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

August 16, 2019

BARBARA G. on behalf of Ferdinand G. deceased, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Tim A. Baker United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Introduction

         This case involves an appeal from an Administrative Law Judge's decision denying disability insurance benefits. The claimant is now deceased, and this case is brought on behalf of the decedent by his widow.[1] Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed reversible error by not properly evaluating the opinion of a consultative examining physician regarding Plaintiff's functional limitations. As explained below, the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, and any omissions amount to nothing more than harmless error. Accordingly, Plaintiff's request for remand [Filing No. 10] is denied.

         II. Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. The Social Security Administration denied his claims initially and upon reconsideration. Following a hearing, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. Plaintiff appealed the unfavorable decision within the SSA, but the Appeals Council denied the request for review.

         The ALJ followed the SSA's five-step sequential process to determine if Plaintiff was disabled at the time of the decision. First, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on June 30, 2017. Next, at step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period for which he was seeking disability benefits. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: coronary artery disease, sick sinus syndrome, atrial fibrillation, hypertension, a history of syncope, a hiatal hernia, gastroesophageal reflux disease and Barrett's syndrome, diabetes mellitus, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, migraine headache/headache, chronic low back pain, obesity, major depressive disorder, history of hallucinations, adjustment disorder with depressed mood, and depression with anxiety. The ALJ found that these medically determinable impairments significantly limited Plaintiff's ability to perform basic work activities as required by SSRs 85-28 and 96-3p. Additionally, the ALJ noted that while the record included documentation of multiple impairments in addition to those listed above, no functional limitations were established in connection with those conditions and there was insufficient evidence that those conditions lasted for at least 12 months or more. Thus, the ALJ found that Plaintiff failed to establish that any other impairment identified in the record was severe. [Filing No. 8-2, at ECF p. 31.]

         At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Before reaching step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, or his remaining ability to function despite his limitations. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform “light work” as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with the following additional limitations:

[Plaintiff] can lift, push, pull, and carry 10 pounds occasionally and 5 pounds frequently, sit 6 hours of an 8-hour workday, stand and walk, in combination, 6 hours of an 8-hour workday and is limited to work that allows him to sit and stand alternatively provided that, if the work[] requires [Plaintiff] to sit then [Plaintiff] can sit for no greater than 60 minutes at one time, if the work requires [Plaintiff] to stand then he can stand for no greater than 1-2 hours at one time, and if the work requires him to walk then he can walk for no greater than about 1-2 blocks at one time. He can never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds, occasionally balance, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ramps and stairs. He is limited to only occasionally stooping but never stooping below the waist. He is limited to a work environment with no concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, wetness, humidity and respiratory irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts, and gases. He can engage in no commercial driving. He can have no exposure to unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. He is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive work as well as work that allows the individual to be off task ten percent of the workday in addition to regularly scheduled breaks.

[Filing No. 8-2, at ECF p. 34.]

         Based on this RFC finding, Plaintiff's past relevant work as a cashier, courier, and clergy member, and the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ concluded at step four that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. Consequently, the ALJ proceeded to step five and found jobs that existed in significant numbers that Plaintiff could have performed considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC. The ALJ noted three such jobs in the decision: bench assembler, sorter, and routing clerk. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled.

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff seeks remand to the ALJ for re-evaluation and consideration of the opinion of consultative examining physician Dr. Gregory M. French. Plaintiff argues Dr. French's opinion was that Plaintiff was more limited, in part, than the ALJ found. This Court reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether the factual findings in the decision are supported by substantial evidence. See, e.g., Biestek v. Berryhill, __ U.S. __, __, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1153 (2019) (“On judicial review, an ALJ's factual findings . . . shall be conclusive if supported by substantial evidence.” (Internal quotation marks omitted)). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The ALJ's decision directly referenced Dr. French and stated in full:

Consultative examiner Gregory French, M.D. opined at one point that [Plaintiff] had no limitations in lifting and carrying but later that [Plaintiff] was limited to lifting 20 pounds. He further alleged that [Plaintiff] could sit, stand, and walk for 30 minutes each, but no more than 2 hours in total in an 8 hour workday. He noted [Plaintiff] should further be limited to occasional posturals but no climbing of ladders, ropes and scaffolds and face only occasional exposure to a range of hazards (14F/2-8, 11). These findings were given mixed weight. No. significant weight was given to the contradictory findings regarding [Plaintiff's] ability to lift and carry and that he could only sit for 2 hours of a workday. These findings lack support from the longitudinal record, including multiple normal physical exams, as well as other persuasive medical opinion statements. Other ...

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