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Cessna Bochard v. Saul

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

October 8, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration[1], Defendant.



         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Tina M. Cessna Bochard's Brief in Support of Plaintiff's Complaint (ECF No. 15), filed on November 14, 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 February 6, 2019. Plaintiff filed her Reply Brief (ECF No. 22) on February 19, 2019. This matter is now ripe for review.

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act on August 7, 2015, alleging that she had been disabled since November 1, 2012. Plaintiff only met the insured status requirements of Title II of the Act through December 31, 2015. Therefore, the relevant period in this case is from November 1, 2012, through December 31, 2015.

         Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. On June 2, 2017, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held an administrative hearing at which testimony was taken from Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”). On September 6, 2017, the ALJ issued her Decision, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. The Decision was affirmed by the Appeals Council. Plaintiff then filed her Complaint to Review Decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (ECF No. 1) on July 12, 2018.

         B. Legal Analysis

1. 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, she “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 [her] assessment of the evidence to assure” the court that she “considered the important evidence” and to enable the court “to trace the path of her 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)).

         2. 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).

         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 found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from November 1, 2012, through December 31, 2015. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: migraines/occipital neuralgia; status post-cervical fusion; discogenic and degenerative changes in the cervical and lumbar spine; partial tear of the right gluteus minimus tendon; fibromyalgia; and bilateral hearing loss. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff had the following non-severe impairments: hyperlipidemia; gout; thyroid nodules; carpal tunnel syndrome (status post-bilateral carpal tunnel release surgeries); trigger thumb and fingers on the right hand (status ...

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