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Daniel H. v. Saul

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

December 9, 2019

DANIEL H., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ENTRY REVIEWING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          Hon. Jane Magnus-Stinson, Chief Judge

         Pro se Plaintiff Daniel H. filed for disability benefits with the Social Security Administration on February 25, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of March 9, 2009. [Filing No. 7-2 at 14.] His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Blanca B. de la Torre. [Filing No. 7-2 at 14.] ALJ de la Torre issued a decision denying Daniel H. benefits, and the Social Security Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's decision and denied Daniel H.'s request for review. [Filing No. 7-2 at 25; Filing No. 7-2 at 2.] This Court affirmed ALJ de la Torre's decision, but the Seventh Circuit subsequently remanded the case for a rehearing. Daniel H. v. Colvin, 778 F.3d 688, 691 (7th Cir. 2015).

         Daniel H. then appeared for another hearing with ALJ de la Torre and was again denied benefits. [Filing No. 7-11 at 29; Filing No. 7-11 at 42.] The Appeals Council again upheld ALJ de la Torre's decision and denied Daniel H.'s request for review. [Filing No. 7-11 at 2.] However, on March 30, 2018, the Honorable William T. Lawrence remanded the case for a rehearing. [1:16-cv-02898-WTL-DLP, Filing No. 23.]

         This time, the hearing was before ALJ Albert J. Velasquez on January 8, 2019. [Filing No. 7-32 at 29.] Daniel H. was once again denied benefits. [Filing No. 7-32 at 6.] Daniel H. then filed suit, asking this Court to review his denial of benefits. [Filing No. 1.]

         I.

         Standard of Review

         “The Social Security Act authorizes payment of disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income to individuals with disabilities.” Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214 (2002). As explained by the Supreme Court,

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 (quotations omitted).

         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 to support the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 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 afford 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 [his] 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, [he] will automatically be found disabled.” Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995). However, “[i]f a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then [he] must satisfy step four. Once step four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the [Social Security Administration] to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.” Id.

         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 his own past relevant work and, if not, at Step Five to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e), (g). The burden of proof is on the claimant for Steps One through Four; only at Step Five does the burden shift to the Commissioner. 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).

         II.

         Background [2]

         Daniel H. filed for disability benefits on February 25, 2010, originally alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2005. [Filing No. 7-2 at 14.] He later amended his alleged onset of disability date to March 9, 2009. [Filing No. 7-2 at 14.] His alleged disability involves obesity, a tear of the medial meniscus in the right knee, partial tearing of ligaments in the right ankle, disc degeneration in the thoracic region, back pain and numbness due to spinal stenosis, hypothyroidism, fibromyalgia, tinnitus, and muscle spasms. [Filing No. 9 at 3.] Daniel H.'s date last insured was June 30, 2010. [Filing No. 7-32 at 6.]

         At the time of the onset date, Daniel H. was 33 years old and had recently moved to Indiana. [Filing No. 9 at 5.] Daniel H. has a high school education and has past relevant work as an aircraft mechanic, electrician, and fast-food lead. [Filing No. 9 at 5.] He had one eight-month old child when he moved to Indiana. [Filing No. 9 at 5.] Daniel H. and his wife lived with his parents for a few months until they bought a house in July 2009. [Filing No. 9 at 5.] After turning one-year old, Daniel H.'s child began going to daycare three times per week, while Daniel H.'s father would come over to help with childcare about six days per month. [Filing No. 9 at 5.]

         ALJ Velasquez 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 Daniel H. was not under a disability at any time between the alleged onset date of March 9, 2009 through the date last insured of ...


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