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Serna v. Saul

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

September 9, 2019

HEIDI SERNA, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          HOLLY A. BRADY, JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Heidi Serna's (“Serna”) appeal of the Social Security Administration's Decision dated June 29, 2017 (the “Decision”). Serna filed her Complaint to Review Decision of Commissioner of Social Security Administration (ECF No. 1) on March 19, 2018. Serna filed her Brief in Support of Plaintiff's Complaint to Review Decision of Commissioner of Social Security Administration (ECF No. 20) on September 25, 2018. Defendant Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), filed his Memorandum in Support of Commissioner's Decision (ECF No. 21) on November 6, 2018. Serna filed her Reply Brief on November 21, 2018. This matter is now ripe for determination.

         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 person is determined to be disabled, their continued entitlement to disability benefits must be reviewed periodically. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(a).

         The continuing disability review process is a sequential analysis prescribed in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f). The regulations for determining whether a claimant's disability has ceased may involve up to eight steps[1] in which the Commissioner must determine (1) whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity, (2) if not, whether the disability continues because the claimant's impairments meet or equal the severity of a listed impairment, (3) whether there has been a medical improvement, (4) if there has been medical improvement, whether it is related to the claimant's ability to work, (5) if there has been no medical improvement or if the medical improvement is not related to the claimant's ability to work, whether any exception to medical improvement applies, (6) if there is medical improvement and it is shown to be related to the claimant's ability to work, whether all of the claimant's current impairments in combination are severe, (7) if the current impairment or combination of impairments is severe, whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform any of his past relevant work activity, and (8) if the claimant is unable to do work performed in the past, whether the claimant can perform other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f); Dixon v. Barnhart, 324 F.3d 997, 1000-01 (8th Cir. 2003).

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Serna had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 20, 2013. At step two, the ALJ determined that Serna did not have an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or medically equals the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. At step three, the ALJ found that Serna experienced medical improvement as of February 20, 2013, and at step four the ALJ concluded that the medical improvement related to Serna's ability to work.

         At step six, the ALJ found that Serna had the following severe impairments: cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease and degenerative joint disease, radiculopathy, sacroiliitis, cervicalgia, and migraines/headaches. At step seven, the ALJ determined that Serna had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform less than the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a). The ALJ additionally included the following restrictions: Serna can stand and/or walk for at least two hours during an eight-hour workday, sit for at least six hours during an eight-hour workday, and lift, carry, push, and pull ten pounds frequently and occasionally throughout the workday; Serna can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, kneel, crouch, crawl, balance, and bend/stoop in addition to what is already required to sit; and Serna should avoid work within close proximity to very loud noises (level five) such as fire alarms and very bright flashing lights such as a strobe light on more than an occasional basis. At step eight, the ALJ found that Serna had no past relevant work, but that she was able to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy, and therefore was not disabled.

         C. Residual Functional Capacity

         On appeal, Serna argues that the ALJ's RFC determination was not supported by substantial evidence. First, Serna asserts that the ALJ failed to consider all the impairments set forth in her records from Dr. Roth at Summit Pain Management. (ECF No. 30 at 9-11). The Court disagrees. The ALJ discussed Dr. Roth's records in detail, including those findings that were inconsistent with his determination. (See, e.g., ECF No. 9 at 37-39). While the ALJ may not have discussed every finding from every visit, he was not required to. “The ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, but must provide a ‘logical bridge' between the evidence and his conclusions.” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 872. The Court finds that ...


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