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Johnson v. Saul

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

August 16, 2019

TRAVIS L. JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON APPROPRIATE DISPOSITION OF THE ACTION

          MATTHEW P. BROOKMAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         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. (Docket No. 21). Plaintiff Travis J.[1] seeks judicial review of the Social Security Administration's final decision deeming him ineligible for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). The matter is fully briefed. (Docket No. 9; Docket No. 19; Docket No. 20). It is recommended that the District Judge REMAND the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration finding that Plaintiff Travis J. is not disabled.

         Introduction

         Plaintiff, Travis J., protectively filed his application for Title II on October 24, 2017, for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning on December 31, 2014. (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF p. 13). His claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF p. 13; Docket No. 7-4 at ECF p. 2; Docket No. 7-4 at ECF p. 7). Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Jeffrey L. Eastham held a hearing on April 19, 2018, at which Travis J., represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (VE) James Bordieri, appeared and testified. (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF p. 13).

         After the hearing, on May 14, 2018, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF pp. 13-24). On July 10, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review, thereby rendering it the agency's final decision for purposes of judicial review. (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF p. 2). On August 15, 2018, Travis J. timely filed this civil action, asking the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final decision of the Deputy Commissioner denying him benefits.

         Standard for Proving Disability

         To prove disability, a claimant must show he 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Plaintiff is disabled if his impairments are of such severity that he is not able to perform the work he previously engaged in and, if based on his age, education, and work experience, he cannot engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). 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 he is, then he is not disabled. Step two asks whether the claimant's impairments, singly or in combination, are severe. If they are not, then he 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 Listings). The Listings includes medical conditions defined by criteria that the SSA has pre-determined 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 similarly 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 his 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 his impairment-related physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. At the fourth step, if the claimant has the RFC to perform his past relevant work, then he is not disabled. The fifth step asks whether there is work in the relevant economy that the claimant can perform, based on his vocational profile (age, work experience, and education) and his RFC. If so, then he 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 his 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. This Court must affirm the ALJ's decision unless it lacks the support of substantial evidence or rests upon a legal error. See, e.g., Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence means evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). The ALJ- not the Court-holds discretion to weigh evidence, resolve material conflicts, make independent factual findings, and decide questions of credibility. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 399- 400 (1971). Accordingly, the Court may not reevaluate facts, reweigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for the ALJ's. See Butera v. Apfel, 173 F.3d 1049, 1055 (7th Cir. 1999).

         The ALJ is required to articulate a minimal, but legitimate, justification for his 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 his decision, but he cannot ignore a line of evidence that undermines the conclusions he made. The ALJ must trace the path of his reasoning and connect the evidence to his findings and conclusions. Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 592 (7th Cir. 2012); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).

         Analysis

         I. The ALJ's Sequential Findings

         Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2021. (Docket No. 7-2 at ECF p. 15). He had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 31, 2014, ...


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