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Persons v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

October 25, 2019

STERLING DUNBAR PERSONS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO Judge.

         Sterling Dunbar Persons suffered from a work-related neck injury in January 2009 when a lift elevator malfunctioned. His head, caught between pipes, bent sideways against his shoulder while the elevator kept ascending. After seeking multiple medical opinions and undergoing months of physical therapy and various pain management regimens, Mr. Persons filed for disability benefits on January 2, 2015, alleging that he became disabled the month of his accident. An administrative law judge found, however, that Mr. Persons retained the capacity to perform a range of light duty work and that there were jobs he could still perform, so his claim was denied. Mr. Persons appeals that decision. For the reasons set forth below, the Court remands for further proceedings.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Mr. Persons worked as a contractor doing insulation work for many years, for different private companies and government departments. In January 2009, Mr. Persons suffered an injury while working on a lift elevator. This injury has allegedly resulted in chronic pain and numbness in his neck and left arm, and consequential manipulative limitations that serve as the genesis of this proceeding. Mr. Persons contends that his injury has created ongoing cervical spine and upper extremity difficulties including disc herniation with nerve involvement, weakness, sensory abnormalities, limitation of motion, and carpal tunnel syndrome.

         After spinal specialists suggested surgery, Mr. Persons sought out a second opinion from Dr. Mark Chang of Midwest SpineCare. Dr. Chang saw Mr. Persons many times between 2009 and 2011, documenting his progress during that period. (See R. 464-75). Under Dr. Chang's supervision, Mr. Persons underwent substantial physical therapy and injections in efforts to relieve his pain. In his last report, Dr. Chang observed that Mr. Persons' status was relatively unchanged since his previous visit, that his pain persisted, his function remained limited, and that he had “difficulty tolerating activities for more than a few minutes at a time.” (R. 475).

         Mr. Persons attempted to return to work in 2014 by taking a job at Walmart, but he was unable to perform those duties due to the injury-related pain. (R. 50). Mr. Persons points to the unpredictable severity of his pain and the nature of his manipulative limitations as the basis for his inability to work. He thus applied for social security benefits, claiming that he was unable to work. An administrative law judge found that Mr. Persons' limitations did not meet a listing requirement at step three, and that he retained the capacity to perform light duty work, subject to some additional limitations. Based on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found that an individual with Mr. Persons' limitations could still do other jobs, so the ALJ denied his claim. The Appeals Council denied review, so Mr. Persons filed this action seeking review of that 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 disability 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). Thus, 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).

         It is the duty of the ALJ 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 this substantial-evidence determination, 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). Consequently, an ALJ's decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues. Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539. While the ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, 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 sequential evaluation process to be used in determining whether the claimant has established a disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). The steps are to be used in the following order:

1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity;
2. Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment;
3. Whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one listed in ...

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