United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
ORDER AND OPINION
R. Leichty Judge.
Romenzak appeals from the Social Security Commissioner's
final judgment denying her disability insurance, widows'
insurance, and supplemental security benefits. Ms. Romenzak
requests remand of her claim for further consideration.
Having reviewed the underlying record and the parties'
arguments, the court denies Ms. Romenzak's request for
remand (ECF 1) and affirms the Commissioner's decision.
Romenzak suffers from a variety of physical and mental health
impairments. Many limitations arose after her 2011 injury,
where she fell and injured her back while working as a school
custodian. ECF 10 at 395. In the months following her
accident, her physicians recommended work restrictions.
Id. at 412. Her physicians continued to monitor her
reported pain and found ongoing mild to severe spinal
conditions. Id. at 750-56. Due to her ongoing pain,
she left her custodian position and has since been
unemployed. Id. at 34, 678. Furthermore, after the
death of her husband in 2013, Ms. Romenzak developed anxiety
and became dependent upon Xanax to regulate it. Id.
Romenzak filed a Title II application for benefits on August
13, 2015, which was denied initially on January 25, 2016, and
again upon reconsideration on April 28, 2016. Id. at
31. Her claims were heard by an Administrative Law Judge
(ALJ) on November 9, 2017. Id. In an April 18, 2018
decision, the ALJ denied Ms. Romenzak's petition on the
basis that she could not show that she was disabled as
defined by the Social Security Act. Id. at 32.
came to this conclusion relying in part on the testimony of
the consultative examiner, Dr. Ryan Oetting. Id. at
42. The ALJ found that, while Ms. Romenzak's impairments
are “severe, they do not preclude her from completing
basic work related activities.” Id. at 43. The
ALJ consequently found that Ms. Romenzak had a residual
functional capacity (RFC) to perform light exertional work as
defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) and had the
mental capacity to participate in simple, routine and
repetitive tasks. Id. at 36. While the ALJ found
that Ms. Romenzak's RFC prevented her from performing her
past relevant work as a custodian, the ALJ found that she can
perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy.
Id. at 43. This decision became final when the
Appeals Council denied Ms. Romenzak's request for review.
Id. at 6.
court has authority to review the Council's decision
under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); however, review is bound by a
strict standard. Because the Council denied review, the court
evaluates the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's
final word. See Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707
(7th Cir. 2013). The ALJ's findings, if supported by
substantial evidence, are conclusive and nonreviewable.
See Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir.
2008). Substantial evidence is that evidence which “a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion, ” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 401 (1971), and may well be less than a preponderance of
the evidence, Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841
(7th Cir. 2007) (citing Richardson, 402 U.S. at
401). If the ALJ has relied on reasonable evidence and built
an “accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to
conclusion, ” the decision must stand. Thomas v.
Colvin, 745 F.3d 802, 806 (7th Cir. 2014). Even if
“reasonable minds could differ” concerning the
ALJ's decision, the court must affirm if the decision has
adequate support. Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503,
513 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Elder v. Astrue, 529
F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008)).
considering a claimant's eligibility for disability
benefits, an ALJ must apply the standard five-step analysis:
(1) is the claimant currently employed; (2) is the
claimant's impairment or combination of impairments
severe; (3) do her impairments meet or exceed any of the
specific impairments listed that the Secretary acknowledges
to be so severe as to be conclusively disabling; (4) if the
impairment has not been listed by the Secretary as
conclusively disabling, given the claimant's residual
function capacity, is the claimant unable to perform her
former occupation; (5) is the claimant unable to perform any
other work in the national economy given her age, education
and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Young v.
Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386,
389 (7th Cir. 1992). The claimant bears the burden of proof
until step five, where the burden shifts to the Commissioner
to prove that the claimant can perform other work in the
economy. See Young, 957 F.2d. at 389.
Romenzak appears to challenge the ALJ's conclusions that
Ms. Romenzak is not totally disabled and has a residual
functional capacity. She argues that the ALJ's
misinterpretation of a single sentence prevented the ALJ from
establishing a logical bridge when determining the RFC. The
key sentence is included in Dr. Oetting's report and
states: “[Ms. Romenzak] had adequate communication
skills and cognitive ability to be able to work in unskilled
labor.” ECF 10 at 697-80. The ALJ gave Dr.
Oetting's opinion great weight when considering Ms.
Romenzak's anxiety and specifically referenced the
sentence at issue. Id. at 40 (“Based on the
examination, [Dr. Oetting] opined that the claimant had
adequate communication skills and cognitive ability to work
in unskilled labor.”). Relying on this examination, the
ALJ found Dr. Oetting's report was consistent with the
record showing that Ms. Romenzak's anxiety was not severe
enough to prevent her from engaging in unskilled labor.
Id. Ms. Romenzak argues that Dr. Oetting's
statement clearly points to a time before her 2011 injury and
does not speak to her present abilities. ECF 16 at 17.
the text of this statement, Ms. Romenzak points to no
additional evidence in the record to support her position.
While the verb tense used in Dr. Oetting's sentence is
not optimally clear, the court believes that the ALJ
reasonably interpreted Dr. Oetting's report as addressing
Ms. Romenzak's current communication skills and cognitive
reasonable minds could differ concerning the statement's
meaning, the court finds that the ALJ had adequate support in
reaching her conclusion. The sentence was in the section of
the report entitled, “Current Level of
Functioning.” ECF 10 at 697. Dr. Oetting's
statement is consistent with his earlier findings that Mr.
Romenzak had good eye contact, spoke at a normal rate and
volume, and communicated “on task.” Id.
at 678. It is also consistent with the record as a whole, as
other examiners and physicians noted Ms. Romenzak's
demeanor, communication skills, and cognitive abilities as