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Christina R. v. Saul

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

October 18, 2019

CHRISTINA R., [1] Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Claimant Christina R. applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) on October 29, 2014, alleging an onset date of June 18, 2014. [Dkt. 7-2 at 19.] Her application was initially denied on December 23, 2014, [Dkt. 7-4 at 2], and upon reconsideration on March 30, 2015, [Dkt. 7-4 at 8]. Administrative Law Judge Blanca B. de la Torre (the “ALJ”) conducted a hearing on March 24, 2017, [Dkt. 7-2 at 41-65], and held a supplemental hearing on July 14, 2017, [Dkt. 7-2 at 68-112]. The ALJ issued a decision on August 28, 2017, concluding that Claimant was not entitled to receive benefits. [Dkt. 7-2 at 16-32.] The Appeals Council denied review on August 29, 2018. [Dkt. 7-2 at 2.] On November 1, 2018, Claimant timely filed this civil action asking the Court to review the denial of benefits according to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). [Dkt. 1.]


         “The Social Security Act authorizes payment of disability insurance benefits . . . to individuals with disabilities.” Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214 (2002). “The statutory definition of ‘disability' has two parts. First, it requires a certain kind of inability, namely, an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. Second, it requires an impairment, namely, a physical or mental impairment, which provides reason for the inability. The statute adds that the impairment must be one that has lasted or can be expected to last . . .not less than 12 months.” Id. at 217.

         When an applicant appeals an adverse benefits decision, this Court's role is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7thCir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). Because the ALJ “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008), this Court must accord the ALJ's credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong.” Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

         The ALJ must apply the five-step inquiry set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), evaluating the following, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently [un]employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the [Commissioner]; (4) whether the claimant can perform her past work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.

Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted) (alterations in original). “If a claimant satisfies steps one, two, and three, she will automatically be found disabled. If a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then she must satisfy step four. Once step four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.” Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).

         After Step Three, but before Step Four, the ALJ must determine a claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) by evaluating “all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009). In doing so, the ALJ “may not dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling.” Id. The ALJ uses the RFC at Step Four to determine whether the claimant can perform her own past relevant work and if not, at Step Five to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(iv), (v).] The burden of proof is on the claimant for Steps One through Four; only at Step Five does the burden shift to the Commissioner. See Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

         If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits “is appropriate only where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).


         Claimant was 34 years of age at the time she alleged her disability began. [Dkt. 7-6 at 2.] She has completed high school, with a history of special education, and previously worked as an administrative assistant and in child services. [Dkt. 7-7 at 6.][2]

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the Social Security Administration in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) and ultimately concluded that Claimant was not disabled. [Dkt. 7-2 at 31.] Specifically, the ALJ found as follows:

• At Step One, Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity[3] since June 18, 2014, the alleged onset date. [Dkt. 7-2 at 21.]
• At Step Two, she had the following severe impairments: obesity, residual effects of bariatric surgery, peripheral neuropathy “due to B12 deficiency, ” Hashimoto's thyroiditis, degenerative disc disease of the lumbosacral spine, depression, anxiety, and “somatization disorder.” [Dkt. 7-2 at 22.]
• At Step Three, Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. [Dkt. 7-2 at 22.]
• After Step Three but before Step Four, she had the RFC “to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b)1 except: She is able to lift, carry, push or pull twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. With customary breaks in the morning, at lunch and in the afternoon, she is able to sit for at least six hours during a typical workday. She is able to stand and/or walk for one hour at a time and for four hours during the workday. She is not able to climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, but she is able to climb ramps and stairs occasionally. She is able to balance, stoop and crouch occasionally, but cannot kneel or crawl. She is able to handle, finger or feel objects bilaterally on a frequent basis, and is able to reach bilaterally in all directions on a constant basis. She cannot tolerate exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold, wetness, industrial vibrations, unprotected heights, or dangerous, moving machinery. She cannot work on wet, slippery uneven surfaces. She cannot work with strobe/flashing lights in the immediate work area. She cannot work in proximity to open bodies of water or fires.
She is unable to perform work that involves walking on wet, slippery or uneven surfaces. She cannot engage in commercial driving.
The claimant has no restriction in the ability to understand, remember and carry out instructions, except for those that are detailed or complex. She can sustain attention and concentration for 2-hour periods at a time and for 8 hours in the workday on all types of tasks except those that are detailed or complex. She has the ability to use judgment in making work-related decisions commensurate with the type of work described above. She requires an occupation with only occasional contact with supervisors and co-workers, and only occasional contact with the public on routine matters.” [Dkt. 7-2 at 25-26.]
• At Step Four, relying on the testimony of the vocational expert (“VE”) considering Claimant's RFC, she was incapable of performing any of her past relevant work as an administrative assistant or her composite jobs that most closely resembled the combined occupations of an inventory clerk, volunteer coordinator, and childcare attendant. [Dkt. 7-2 at 30.]
• At Step Five, relying on VE testimony considering Claimant's age, education, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she could have performed through the date of the decision in representative occupations, such as an office helper, mail clerk, and photocopying machine operator. [Dkt. 7-2 at 30-31.]

         III. ...

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