United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
ORDER AND OPINION
R. Leichty Judge, United States District Court
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.
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.
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.
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)).
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
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.
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).
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
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
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) ...