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Willliam F. v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

September 27, 2019

WILLIAM F., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO JUDGE

         William F. applied for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging that he is unable to work primarily due to memory issues. Mr. F. filed this appeal, asking the Court to reverse the ALJ’s decision and remand for further proceedings based on alleged errors with the residual functional capacity assessment. The Commissioner filed a response in opposition. Mr. F. has not filed a reply, and the time to do so has passed. The Court finds that the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence and affirms the decision.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On February 23, 2015, Mr. F. suffered a stroke and was hospitalized. Upon discharge on March 18, 2015, Mr. F. was able to walk independently, had no agitation, and was oriented to person and place, but he had no recall of current events. Mr. F. participated in outpatient speech and language therapy beginning on April 24, 2015. On June 19, 2015, Mr. F. had an initial psychiatric assessment at Oaklawn Psychiatric Center with Dr. Gegeshidze. On August 21, 2015, Mr. F. began periodic outpatient psychiatric visits for medication management with Dr. Gegeshidze, essentially every three months. From his August 2015 visit with Gegeshidze to the final visit on April 26, 2017, Mr. F.’s mental status examinations were largely benign, noting limited insight and judgment, but with a fairly good attention span, improved memory skills but mildly impaired recent and remote memory, a good mood and affect, and logical thinking. Mr. F. often reported forgetfulness and getting frustrated when he could not find things or when he forgot names or telephone numbers. On September 22, 2015, Mr. F. began receiving occupational therapy and physical therapy for balance, cognitive functioning, and strength deficits. He was discharged from physical therapy on October 27, 2015, with improved physical functioning and from occupational therapy on November 24, 2015, with improved grip strength.

         On August 18, 2017, the ALJ held a hearing, and, on November 1, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision, finding that Mr. F. had the severe impairments of history of thoracic spine compression fracture, organic mental disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD)/Asthma. The ALJ made the following residual functional capacity finding:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) with additional nonexertional limitations. He can lift and carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; sit for 6 hours, stand and/or walk for 6 hours, and push and/or pull as much as can lift/carry. The claimant can frequently climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. He can have occasional exposure to unprotected heights; moving mechanical parts; operation of a motor vehicle; dust, odors, fumes, and other pulmonary irritants; extreme cold; or extreme heat. The claimant is limited to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks and making simple work-related decisions.

AR 16. The ALJ found that Mr. F. was not disabled and denied his application for benefits. After the Appeals Council declined review, Mr. F. filed this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Because the Appeals Council denied review, the Court evaluates the ALJ’s decision as the final word of the Commissioner of Social Security. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). This Court will affirm the Commissioner’s findings of fact and denial of benefits if they are supported by substantial evidence. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). This evidence must be “more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Even if “reasonable minds could differ” about the disability status of the claimant, the Court must affirm the Commissioner’s decision as long as it is adequately supported. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         The ALJ has the duty to weigh the evidence, resolve material conflicts, make independent findings of fact, and dispose of the case accordingly. Perales, 402 U.S. at 399–400. In evaluating the ALJ’s decision, the Court considers the entire administrative record but does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute the Court’s own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Nevertheless, the Court conducts a “critical review of the evidence” before affirming the Commissioner’s decision. Id. An ALJ must evaluate both the evidence favoring the claimant as well as the evidence favoring the claim’s rejection and may not ignore an entire line of evidence that is contrary to his or her findings. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001). The ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).

         III. STANDARD FOR DISABILITY

         Disability benefits are available only to those individuals who can establish disability under the terms of the Social Security Act. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998). Specifically, the claimant must be 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Social Security regulations create a five-step process to determine whether the claimant qualifies as disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)–(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)–(v). The steps are to be used in the following order:

1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial ...

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