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Russell G. v. Saul

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

September 16, 2019

RUSSELL G., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Doris L. Pryor United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Russell G.[1] seeks judicial review of the denial by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) of his application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d), 405(g). For the reasons set forth below, this Court hereby REVERSES the ALJ's decision denying the Plaintiff benefits and REMANDS this matter for further consideration.

         I. Procedural History

         On March 30, 2015, Russell filed for disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging that his disability began on December 4, 2010. Russell's claim was denied initially on August 4, 2015, and upon reconsideration on December 7, 2015. Russell then filed a written request for a hearing on December 14, 2015, which was granted.

         On August 9, 2017, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Belinda J. Brown conducted the hearing, where Russell and a vocational expert testified. On December 29, 2017, ALJ Brown issued an unfavorable decision finding that Russell was not disabled as defined in the Act. On July 12, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Russell's request for review of this decision, making the ALJ's decision final. Russell now requests judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         II. Standard of Review

         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. § 423(d)(1)(A). To meet this definition, a claimant's impairments must be of such severity that he is not able to perform the work he previously engaged in and, 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. § 423(d)(2)(A). 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. The ALJ must consider whether:

(1) the claimant is presently [un]employed; (2) the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) the claimant's impairment meets or equals any impairment listed in the regulations as being so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity; (4) the claimant's residual functional capacity leaves [him] unable to perform [his] past relevant work; and (5) the claimant is unable to perform any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy.

Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351-52 (7th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). An affirmative answer to each step leads either to the next step or, at steps three and five, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Briscoe, 425 F.3d at 352. A negative answer at any point, other than step three, terminates the inquiry and leads to a determination that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant bears the burden of proof through step four. Briscoe, 425 F.3d at 352. If the first four steps are met, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Id. The Commissioner must then establish that the claimant-in light of his age, education, job experience and residual functional capacity to work-is capable of performing other work and that such work exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

         The Court reviews the Commissioner's denial of benefits to determine whether it was supported by substantial evidence or is the result of an error of law. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). Evidence is substantial when it is sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that the evidence supports the decision. Rice v. Barnhart, 384 F.3d 363, 369 (7th Cir. 2004). The standard demands more than a scintilla of evidentiary support but does not demand a preponderance of the evidence. Wood v. Thompson, 246 F.3d 1026, 1029 (7th Cir. 2001). Thus, the issue before the Court is not whether Russell is disabled, but, rather, whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence. Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 306 (7th Cir. 1995).

         In this substantial-evidence determination, the Court must consider the entire administrative record but not “reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute our own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). Nevertheless, the Court must conduct a critical review of the evidence before affirming the Commissioner's decision, and the decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues, Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003); see also Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).

         When an ALJ denies benefits, he must build an “accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion, ” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 872, articulating 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, and he 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 at 872.

         III. Background

         A. Factual Background

         Russell was 53 years old at the time of the alleged onset date in 2010 and was 60 at the time of his hearing. [Dkt. 8-7 at 10 (R. 273).] He obtained his General Educational Development (“GED”) certification. [Dkt. 8-2 at 37 (R. 36).] The Plaintiff has past relevant work history as a service manager and as a taxi driver. [Dkt. 8-3 at 33 (R. 296); Dkt. 8-2 at 38-40 (R. 37-39).]

         B. ALJ Decision

         In determining whether Russell qualified for benefits under the Act, the ALJ went through the five-step analysis required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). At step one, the ALJ found that Russell was insured through December 31, 2016 and had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of disability. [Dkt. 8-2 at 16 (R. 15).] At step two, the ALJ found that Russell's severe impairments included “right shoulder tendonopathy (sic), osteoarthritis, and tears; left shoulder tenosynovitis, osteoarthritis and tears; and right knee meniscal tear, ” along with the non-severe impairment of depression. [Id.]

         At step three, the ALJ considered relevant listings for shoulder impairments, knee impairments, and mental impairments, and determined that Russell did not meet or equal any of the listings. [Dkt. 5-2 at 17-18 (R. 16-17).] Next, the ALJ determined Russell had a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with the following exceptions:

• only lifting, carrying, pushing, or pulling 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently;
• standing and/or walking or a combination thereof for a total of 6 of 8 hours and sitting for 6 of 8 hours;
• frequently reaching to the left and right and frequently reaching overhead to the left and the right;
• only climbing stairs and ramps occasionally;
• no climbing of ropes, ladders, or ...

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