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Hoopingarner v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

August 20, 2019

PAULA HOOPINGARNER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL,[1] COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          HOLLY A. BRADY JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Paula Hoopingarner's (“Hoopingarner”) appeal of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) Decision dated March 9, 2017 (the “Decision”). Hoopingarner filed her Brief in Support of Her Request for Review and Remand of the Commissioner of Social Security's Final Decision (ECF No. 13) on August 27, 2018. Defendant filed his Memorandum in Support of Commissioner's Decision (ECF No. 16) on December 10, 2018. Hoopingarner filed her Reply Brief in Support of her Request for Review and Remand of the Commissioner of Social Security's Final Decision (ECF No. 17) on December 17, 2018. This matter is now ripe for review.

         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 her 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 her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work, but also any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. § 423(d)(2)(A); § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         If a claimant's application is denied initially and on reconsideration, she 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(a); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 885 (7th Cir. 2001).

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Hoopingarner had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 23, 2014. At step two, the ALJ found that Hoopingarner had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic pain syndrome, and obesity. The ALJ further found that Hoopingarner had the following non-severe impairments: headaches, depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Finally, the ALJ found that Hoopingarner's diagnosis of fibromyalgia did not meet the qualifications for a medically determinable impairment under SSA regulations.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Hoopingarner did not have “an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (ECF No. 9 at 18). At step four, the ALJ found that Hoopingarner had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) except that she could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, and that she should never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. She could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl, but that she should avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights, dangerous moving machinery, and wet, slippery or uneven surfaces. Given that RFC, the ALJ determined that Hoopingarner could perform past relevant work as a Customer Service Agent, and therefore was not disabled.

         C. Residual Functional Capacity

         On appeal, Hoopingarner argues that the ALJ's RFC determination was not supported by substantial evidence.[2] She submits that the ALJ ignored evidence showing that her depression and anxiety were severe impairments, including various statements and notations in her medical records and Function Reports. Hoopingarner further contends that, even if her mental conditions are not considered severe, the ALJ still committed error by failing to evaluate her mental conditions in combination with her other impairments. ...


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