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Reaser v. Saul

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

November 21, 2019

MARIA REASER, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Maria Reaser seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). Plaintiff alleges that she has been disabled since January 4, 2014, due to a variety of physical impairments, including degenerative disc disease, cervical disc disorder, carpal tunnel, and obesity.


         A. The ALJ's Decision

         A person suffering from a disability that renders him 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 his physical or mental limitations prevent him from doing not only his previous work, but also any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering his age, education, and work experience. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         If a claimant's application is denied initially and on reconsideration, he 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, if not (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).

         Here, at step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date, January 4, 2014. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine for which she had undergone remote surgeries, cervical disc disease, for which she had undergone cervical fusion in June 2014, and obesity. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome was not severe, as Plaintiff had improved following surgery. However, the ALJ recognized that Plaintiff had some limitations in fingering, feeling, and handling that would be addressed in the residual functional capacity.

         The ALJ also thought Plaintiff's headaches, although they did not support a severe condition, were a symptom connected to the severe impairment of cervical degenerative disc disease. The symptom supported a restriction from working in loud environments. Plaintiff's non-insulin dependent diabetes was also considered, but found not to be severe.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments.

         Before moving to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a reduced range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), with no overhead reaching, no more than frequent bilateral fingering, feeling, and handling, occasional use of ramps/stairs, no use of ladders/ropes/scaffolds, no crawling, kneeling, stooping, or crouching beyond what was necessary to sit and stand, and no more than occasional movement of her neck to change her field of vision. Additionally, she could not work in a loud environment, or work around dangerous moving machinery or unprotected heights.

         Based on the above RFC and his hypothetical questions to the vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not able to perform her past relevant work, but that there were other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. Thus, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act.

         B. 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 “evidence a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the decision.” Murphy v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 630, 633 (7th Cir. 2007).

         In determining whether there is substantial evidence, the Court reviews the entire record. Kepple v. Massanari, 268 F.3d 513, 516 (7th Cir. 2001). 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.” Lope ...

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