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Phillip B. v. Saul

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

December 18, 2019

PHILLIP B. [1], Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Defendant.



         Claimant Phillip B. requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his 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 January 23, 2014, Claimant applied for DIB, alleging the onset of disability as of June 1, 2006. [Dkt. 8-5 at 2.] Claimant's date last insured was September 30, 2012. Claimant's application was initially denied on February 12, 2014, and again upon reconsideration on May 28, 2014. [Dkt. 8-4 at 11.] Administrative Law Judge Albert J. Velazquez (“ALJ”) held a hearing on Claimant's application in October, 2015. [Dkt. 8-2 at 33.] On November 25, 2015, the ALJ issued his determination that Claimant was not disabled. [Id. at 20.] The Appeals Council then denied Claimant's request for review on January 13, 2017. [Dkt. 8-25 at 18.] Claimant timely filed a complaint with the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana on February 27, 2017. [Dkt. 8-25 at 28.] Pursuant to an agreed motion, the court entered judgment in favor of Claimant on November 3, 2017, and directed the Commissioner on remand to redetermine Claimant's RFC and to reconsider Claimant's limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace. [Dkt 8-25 at 34.] On October 24, 2018, the ALJ held a second hearing, [Dkt. 8-23 at 36], and again denied Claimant's application on January 2, 2019. [Dkt. 8-23 at 15.] The Appeals Council failed to timely act upon Claimant's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Claimant then timely filed his 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, he is not disabled; (2) if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment, one that significantly limits his ability to perform basic work activities, he 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 his past relevant work, he is not disabled; and (5) if the claimant is not found to be disabled at step three, cannot perform his past relevant work, but can perform certain other available work, he 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 own 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. (citing 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 his decision on all of the relevant evidence, Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994), and must “provide some glimpse into [his] reasoning” to “build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [his] conclusion, ” he 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 June 1, 2006, through his last insured date of September 30, 2012. [Dkt. 8-23 at 7.] At step two, the ALJ determined that Claimant had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, obstructive sleep apnea, depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and history of drug and alcohol abuse. [Id. at 8.] At step three, however, the ALJ found that Claimant “did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments.” [Id.] In making this determination, the ALJ considered Listings 1.04 (Disorders of the Spine), 12.04 (Depressive, bipolar and related disorders), and 12.06 (Anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders). [Id.]

         The ALJ then analyzed Claimant's RFC and concluded that he had the RFC through the date last insured to perform light work, except:

[Claimant] could lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; standing and/or walking for two (2) hours; and sitting for six (6) hours in an 8- hour workday. The claimant is capable of occasionally balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and climbing ramps and stairs; but cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds and cannot crawl. The claimant's work must allow him to alternate to a sitting or standing position for 1-2 minutes each hour at the option of the claimant and have the use of a cane for ambulation to and from the workstation. The claimant had to avoid work at unprotected heights; work around dangerous moving machinery, open flames or large bodies or water; and no work requiring the operation of a motor vehicle. The claimant's work [sic] able to be learned in 30 days or less or by demonstration, i.e., limited to simple and repetitive tasks. Finally, the claimant's work should require no more than occasional interaction with the public, coworkers or supervisors.

[Id. at 9.] In determining the RFC, the ALJ concluded that 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 consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record for the reasons explained in this decision.” [Id. at 10.]

         At step four, the ALJ found that Claimant had no past relevant work. [Id. at 13.] 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 final assembler, document preparer, and weight tester. [Id. at 14.] Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded that Claimant was not disabled. [Id. at 15.]

         IV. Discussion

         The central issue in this case is whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination that Claimant is not disabled. Claimant advances two arguments for reversing the ALJ's decision: (1) the ALJ erred by failing to account for his own findings of moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or maintaining pace in his RFC determination and in the hypothetical question he posed to the VE; and (2) the ALJ erred by failing to adequately consider whether Claimant's mental impairments met or equaled Listing 12.15. These arguments are addressed, in turn, below.

         A. Limitations in Concentration, Persistence, or Pace

         Claimant contends that the ALJ did not appropriately address his limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace in both the ALJ's RFC determination and in the hypothetical question he posed to the VE. [Dkt. 11 at 31.] Specifically, Claimant asserts that the ALJ's RFC determination is “even more deficient than the simple, repetitive work limitation in Vargas.” [Dkt. 11 at 32.] In response, the Commissioner argues that, unlike Vargas, the ALJ's RFC determination does take into account all of Claimant's mental limitations, because the ALJ determined that Claimant could perform “a range of light work” subject to the additional limitations, including his limited capacity for work that could be learned within 30 days (i.e., simple and routine tasks) and work that provided only some occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors. [Dkt. 12 at 14.]

         In step three, with regard to concentration, persistence, or maintaining pace, the ALJ found:

[T]he claimant has moderate limitation. As stated above, the claimant graduated from high school. However, [the ALJ] noted no particular evaluation that suggested the claimant had more ...

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