United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division
OPINION AND ORDER
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.
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.
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).
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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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).
STANDARD FOR 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
1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial
2. Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment;
3. Whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one
listed in ...