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Peters v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

December 11, 2019

JAMES PETERS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION

          Damon R. Leichty Judge, United States District Court

         Plaintiff James Peters seeks judicial review of the Social Security Administration's decision denying his application for disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). Mr. Peters requests remand of his claim for further consideration. Having reviewed the underlying record and the parties' arguments, the court AFFIRMS the ALJ's judgment denying Mr. Peters social security benefits.

         BACKGROUND

         On March 15, 2015, Mr. Peters filed an application for Social Security-Disability Insurance Benefits, asserting that he was disabled and had been disabled since January 30, 2014. ECF 12 at 14. On September 21, 2017, a hearing was held before the ALJ. Id. On December 22, 2017, the ALJ entered a decision denying Mr. Peters benefits. Id. at 26. On February 19, 2018, Mr. Peters challenged the ALJ's decision by timely filing a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order with the Appeals Council. Id. at 8. The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision on August 7, 2018. Id. at 5. Because the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision, that ALJ decision is the final decision of the agency. See 20 C.F.R. 404.981.

         Thereafter, Mr. Peters timely filed his complaint to this court. ECF 1. Mr. Peters also filed an opening brief. ECF 15. The Social Security Commission timely filed a response. ECF 16. Mr. Peters did not exercise his right to reply. The issues are fully ripe for decision.

         STANDARD

         The court has authority to review the Council's decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); however, review is bound by a strict standard. Because the Council denied review, the court evaluates the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final word. See Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). The ALJ's findings, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive and nonreviewable. See Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence is that evidence that “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), and may well be less than a preponderance of the evidence, Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007) (citing Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401). If the ALJ has relied on reasonable evidence and built an “accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and her conclusion, ” the decision must stand. Thomas v. Colvin, 745 F.3d 802, 806 (7th Cir. 2014). Even if “reasonable minds could differ” concerning the ALJ's decision, the court must affirm if the decision has adequate support. Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 513 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008)).

         DISCUSSION

         When considering a claimant's eligibility for disability benefits, an ALJ must apply the standard five-step analysis: (1) is the claimant currently employed; (2) is the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments severe; (3) do her impairments meet or exceed any of the specific impairments listed that the Secretary acknowledges to be so severe as to be conclusively disabling; (4) if the impairment has not been listed by the Secretary as conclusively disabling, given the claimant's residual function capacity, is the claimant unable to perform her former occupation; (5) is the claimant unable to perform any other work in the national economy given her age, education and work experience. See Young v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992). The claimant bears the burden of proof until step five, where the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that the claimant can perform other work in the economy. See id.

         Here, the ALJ found that Mr. Peters satisfied step one by not being currently employed in substantial gainful activity. ECF 12 at 16. The ALJ then found that Mr. Peters satisfied step two by finding that he had several severe impairments, including degenerative disc disease, knee osteoarthritis, degenerative changes in right shoulder, history of ankle fracture with chronic injury to ligaments, traumatic arthritis to the ankle, peripheral neuropathy of the lower extremities, history of ingrown toenail, diabetes, obesity, and headaches. Id. The ALJ then found that Mr. Peters' impairments did not meet or exceed any of the specific impairments listed that are so severe as to be conclusively disabling. Id. at 13. The ALJ then proceeded to formulate the following Residual Functional Capacity (RFC):

[C]laimant can lift and carry and push/pull 20 pounds occasionally, and 10 pounds frequently, and can stand and/or walk for six hours of an eight-hour workday, and sit for six hours of an eight-hour workday. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant must avoid reaching overhead with the dominant arm, and can perform frequent reaching in all other directions with the dominant arm. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to slippery and uneven surfaces, and must avoid all exposure to hazards such as dangerous moving machinery, and unprotected heights. The claimant must avoid operating motorized vehicles as part of work duties, and must avoid concentrated exposure to sunlight or bright task lighting. The claimant can understand, remember, and carry out instructions to perform simple tasks, and can exercise judgment required to perform simple tasks. The claimant is limited to routine and repetitive tasks-essentially the same tasks in the same place every day, with no fast paced or piece rate work, with end of day goals only. The claimant must avoid work requiring frequent tracking of moving objects, such as inspecting an item moving by on a conveyor belt.

Id. at 19. At step four, the ALJ determined, based on his RFC findings, that Mr. Peters was unable to perform past work. Id. at 24. At step five, however, the ALJ found that Mr. Peters could perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy as a marker, cleaner-housekeeper, and folding machine operator. Id. at 25. Because of his determination at step five, the ALJ denied Mr. Peters benefits.

         Mr. Peters asserts the ALJ erred in four ways in his decision. Mr. Peters argues that: (1) the ALJ failed to adequately account for his moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace in the RFC; (2) the ALJ failed to adequately account for his moderate limitations in understanding, remembering, or applying information in the RFC; (3) the ALJ failed to include adequate limitations regarding handling, fingering, or feeling in the RFC; and (4) the ALJ erred in failing to identify and reconcile apparent conflicts between the testimony of the vocational expert (VE) and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT).

         Because the first three objections center around the RFC, the court notes the relevant functions of the RFC. The RFC is a measure of what an individual can do despite the limitations imposed by his impairments. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004). The determination of an RFC is a legal decision rather than a medical one. See Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 306 n.2 (7th Cir. 1995). “RFC is an assessment of an individual's ability to do sustained work-related physical and mental activities in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis. A ‘regular and continuing' basis means 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). That landscape painted, the court turns now to decide the arguments on appeal.

         A. Mental Limitations

         Two objections deal with the RFC's mental limitation findings. The RFC finding here found that Mr. Peters had the following mental limitations:

The claimant can understand, remember, and carry out instructions to perform simple tasks, and can exercise judgment required to perform simple tasks. The claimant is limited to routine and repetitive tasks-essentially the same tasks in the same place every day, with no fast paced or piece rate work, with end of day goals only. The claimant must avoid work requiring frequent tracking of moving objects, such as inspecting an item moving by on a conveyor belt.

         ECF 12 at 19. This RFC finding was recited in the ALJ's hypothetical to the vocational expert. Id. at 59. Mr. Peters argues in his first two objections that the RFC finding does not account for the ALJ's determination at step three of the sequential evaluation process that Mr. Peters had moderate limitations in (1) ...


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