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Heazeltine v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

August 19, 2019

ANDREW HEAZELTINE, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          HOLLY A. BRADY JUDGE

         Plaintiff Andrew Heazeltine seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying his application for disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff alleges that he has been disabled since August 2013 due to chronic back pain.

         ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         A claimant who is found to be “not disabled” may challenge the Commissioner's final decision in federal court. This Court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and free from legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla of proof.” Kepple v. Massanari, 268 F.3d 513, 516 (7th Cir. 2001). It means “evidence a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the decision.” Murphy v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 630, 633 (7th Cir. 2007); see also Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 305 (7th Cir. 1995) (substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”) (citation and quotations omitted).

         In determining whether there is substantial evidence, the Court reviews the entire record. Kepple, 268 F.3d at 516. However, review is deferential. Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). A reviewing court will not “reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003) (quoting Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000)).

         Nonetheless, if, after a “critical review of the evidence, ” the ALJ's decision “lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues, ” this Court will not affirm it. Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539 (citations omitted). While the ALJ need not discuss every piece of evidence in the record, he “must build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [the] conclusion.” Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). Further, the ALJ “may not select and discuss only that evidence that favors his ultimate conclusion, ” Diaz, 55 F.3d at 308, but “must confront the evidence that does not support his conclusion and explain why it was rejected, ” Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 474 (7th Cir. 2004). Ultimately, the ALJ must “sufficiently articulate his assessment of the evidence to assure” the court that he “considered the important evidence” and to enable the court “to trace the path of [his] reasoning.” Carlson v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 180, 181 (7th Cir. 1993) (quoting Stephens v. Heckler, 766 F.2d 284, 287 (7th Cir. 1985) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         A person suffering from a disability that renders him unable to work may apply to the Social Security Administration for disability benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) (defining disability as the “inability 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”). To be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that his physical or mental limitations prevent him from doing not only his previous work, but also any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering his age, education, and work experience. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         If a claimant's application is denied initially and on reconsideration, he may request a hearing before an ALJ. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(b)(1). An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits: (1) whether the claimant is currently employed, (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment, (3) whether the claimant's impairment is one that the Commissioner considers conclusively disabling, (4) if the claimant does not have a conclusively disabling impairment, whether he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past relevant work, and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 885 (7th Cir. 2001).

         Here, at step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 30, 2013, the alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairment of lumbar degenerative disc disease. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments.” (R. 21.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c), except that he had additional postural limitations. He could only occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, or climb. Based on the above RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as a heavy equipment operator. At step five, the ALJ found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and, thus, he was not disabled.

         C. State Agency Medical Experts

         The residual functional capacity (RFC) measures what work-related activities a claimant can perform despite his limitations. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004). It is the most the claimant can still do. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 675-76 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)). A claimant's RFC must be based upon the medical evidence in the record and other evidence, such as testimony by the claimant or his friends and family. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). In making a determination, the ALJ must decide which treating and examining doctors' opinions should receive weight, and explain the reasons for that finding. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527. Additionally, the ALJ's RFC assessment must contain a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports the ALJ's conclusions and ...


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