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Alice K. v. Saul

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

November 20, 2019

ALICE K.[1], Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Defendant.

          ENTRY ON JUDICIAL REVIEW

          MARK J. DINSMORE JUDGE

         Claimant Alice K. requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). See 42 U.S.C. §423(d).

         I. Background

         On February 23, 2015, Claimant applied for DIB, alleging that she had been disabled since January 17, 2012. [Dkt. 5-5 at 2.] Claimant alleges that she is disabled due to severe depression, Raynaud's syndrome, spinal injury from a car accident, idiopathic intracranial hypertension, pernicious anemia, chronic back pain, hypothyroidism, dysthymia, and failed fusion surgery.[2] [Dkt. 5-6 at 60.] Her application was initially denied on July 30, 2015, and again upon reconsideration on September 21, 2015. [Dkt. 5-4 at 37.] Administrative Law Judge Tammy Whitaker (“ALJ”) held a hearing on Claimant's application in July, 2017. [Dkt. 5-2 at 40.] On January 19, 2018, the ALJ issued her decision in which she determined that Claimant was not disabled. [Id. at 13.] The Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review on February 11, 2019, [id. at 2], which made the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Claimant then timely filed her complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. [Dkt. 1.]

         II. Legal Standard

         To be eligible for DIB, a claimant must have a disability pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423. Disability is defined 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner, as represented by the ALJ, employs a sequential, five-step analysis: (1) if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled; (2) if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment, one that significantly limits her ability to perform basic work activities, she is not disabled; (3) if the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment appearing in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpart P, App. 1, the claimant is disabled; (4) if the claimant is not found to be disabled at step three, and is able to perform her past relevant work, she is not disabled; and (5) if the claimant is not found to be disabled at step three, cannot perform her past relevant work, but can perform certain other available work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (2012). Before continuing to step four, the ALJ must assess the 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).

         The ALJ's findings of fact are conclusive and this Court must uphold them “so long as substantial evidence supports them and no error of law occurred.” Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2007). This Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ, but may determine only whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion. Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing Schmidt v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 970, 972 (7th Cir. 2000)); Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). 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 there was substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004). 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.; Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks 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.” Prochsaka v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (citing Carradine v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d 751, 758 (7th Cir. 2004)). While the ALJ must base her decision on all of the relevant evidence, Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994), and must “provide some glimpse into her reasoning” to “build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to her conclusion, ” she need not “address every piece of evidence or testimony.” Dixon, 270 F.3d at 1176.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ first determined that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of August 12, 2014. [Dkt. 5-2 at 19.] At step two, the ALJ determined that Claimant had the following severe impairments: Degenerative Disk Disease, status post fusion and with post-laminectomy syndrome, Pseudo Tumor Cerebri and Papilledema, Episodic Tension Headaches, Raynaud's Syndrome, Hypothyroidism, Pernicious Anemia, a Major Depressive Disorder, a Dysthymic Disorder, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and a Generalized Anxiety Disorder. [Id.] At step three, however, the ALJ found that Claimant “d[id] not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments.” [Id. at 20.] In making this determination, the ALJ considered Listings 1.02 (Joint Dysfunction), 1.04 (Disorders of the Spine), 2.02 (Loss of central visual acuity), 2.03 (Contraction of the visual fields in the better eye), 2.04 (Loss of visual efficiency), 7.05 (Hemolytic anemias, including sickle cell disease, thalassemia, and their variants), 9.00 (Endocrine Disorders), 11.00 (Neurological), and 11.14 (Peripheral neuropathy). [Id.]

         The ALJ then analyzed Claimant's RFC and concluded that she had the RFC to perform light work, except:

[Claimant] has been able to lift, push, pull, and/or carry 10 pounds occasionally and 5 pounds frequently. She has been able to sit for six hours during an eight hour workday. She has been able to stand and walk, in combination, six hours during an eight-hour workday. However, she has been limited to work that allows the individual to sit, walk, and stand alternatively, provided that, at one time, the claimant can only sit for thirty minutes, stand for thirty minutes, and walk for about a half block to one block; and further provided that the individual is not off task more than five percent of the workday in addition to regularly scheduled breaks. She is not able to climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds. She is able to climb ramps or stairs occasionally. She is not able to crawl. She is able to balance, kneel, or crouch occasionally. She is able to stoop occasionally, but she is not able to stoop repetitively below the level of the waist. She must have no exposure to extreme cold. She must have no concentrated exposure to extreme heat, wetness, humidity, and respiratory irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts, and gases. She must have no exposure to a work environment with a noise level rating of four (i.e. loud noises) and five (i.e. very loud noises), as those noise level ratings are defined by the Dictionary of Occupational Titles and its companion publication. She must have no exposure to vibration, unprotected heights, and dangerous machinery. She has been limited to the simple, routine, and repetitive work with “simple” defined as unskilled work. She is limited to work with only occasional interaction with the public, occasional interaction with coworkers, and occasional interaction with supervisors. She is limited to work that allows the individual to be off task five percent of the workday in addition to regularly scheduled breaks.

[Id. at 24.] In determining the RFC, the ALJ concluded that “the claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible so as to preclude full-time work.” [Id. at 30.]

         At step four, the ALJ found that Claimant was unable to perform her past relevant work as a laboratory technician. [Id.] The ALJ proceeded to step five, considering testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), who indicated that an individual with Claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC would be able to perform several jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as photocopy machine operator, office helper, and cashier. [Id. at 31.] Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded that Claimant was not disabled. [Id. at 32.]

         IV. Discussion

         The central issue is whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination that Claimant is not disabled. Claimant asserts three arguments for reversing the ALJ's decision: (1) the ALJ failed to grant controlling weight to the relevant medical evidence; (2) the ALJ failed to account for Claimant's subjective symptoms when making her RFC determination; and (3) the ALJ violated SSR 00-4p by failing to clarify the conflict between the VE's testimony and the DOT. These arguments are addressed, in turn, below.

         A. Relevant ...


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