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John H. v. Saul

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

December 18, 2019

JOHN H., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          TANYA WALTON PRATT, JUDGE United States District Court

         Plaintiff John H.[1] requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “SSA”), denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under the Social Security Act. For the following reasons, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.


         On March 9, 2015, John H. protectively filed an application for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of August 1, 2014. (Filing No. 8-2 at 16.) His application was initially denied on May 26, 2015, (Filing No. 8-4 at 2), and upon reconsideration on September 17, 2015, (Filing No. 8-4 at 8). Administrative Law Judge Monica LaPolt (the “ALJ”) conducted a hearing on July 6, 2017, at which John H., represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”), appeared and testified. (Filing No. 8-2 at 34-63.) The ALJ issued a decision on October 27, 2017, concluding that John H. was not entitled to receive benefits. (Filing No. 8-2 at 13.) The Appeals Council denied review on June 23, 2018. (Filing No. 8-2 at 2.) On August 22, 2018, John H. timely filed this civil action, asking the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final decision of the Commissioner denying his benefits. (Filing No. 1.)


         Under the Social Security Act, a claimant may be entitled to benefits only after he establishes that he is disabled. 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 be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that his physical or mental limitations prevent him from doing not only his previous work but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering his age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled despite his medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). At step two, if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment that also meets the durational requirement, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelve-month duration requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

         If the claimant's impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the impairments on the Listing of Impairments, then his residual functional capacity will be assessed and used for the fourth and fifth steps. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv)-(v). Residual functional capacit y (“RFC”) is the “maximum that a claimant can still do despite his mental and physical limitations.” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 675-76 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). At the fifth and final step, it must be determined whether the claimant can perform any other work, given his RFC and considering his age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). The claimant is not disabled if he can perform any other work in the relevant economy.

         The combined effect of all the impairments of the claimant shall be considered throughout the disability determination process. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B). The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps; it then shifts to the Commissioner for the fifth step. Young v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992).

         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 for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7thCir. 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, 539 F.3d at 678, this Court must accord 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).

         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).


         John H. was 59 years of age at the time he filed for DIB, (Filing No. 8-5 at 2), alleging he could no longer work because of tremors, early onset Parkinson's disease, ringing in his right ear, degenerative disc disease, a tailbone injury, and pain in his heels (Filing No. 8-6 at 3.) He has completed his general equivalence diploma and has worked as a laborer in construction. (Filing No. 8-6 at 104). In May 2013, John H. was awarded service-connected disability compensation from the Veteran's Administration (“VA”), with an eighty percent full body disability rating, for Parkinson's disease with upper extremity tremors, mild cognitive impairment or dementia, moderate sleep disturbance, and tinnitus. (Filing No. 8-2 at 24.) Additionally, he has worked in other occupations besides in construction, including as a furniture salesman.[2] (Filing No. 8-2 at 27.)

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) and ultimately concluded that John H. was not disabled. Id. At step one, the ALJ found that John H. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity[3] since August 1, 2014, the alleged onset date. (Filing No. 8-2 at 18.) At step two, the ALJ found that he had a severe impairment: degenerative disc disease. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that John H. did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (Filing No. 8-2 at 21.) After step three but before step four, the ALJ concluded that “[a]fter careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except: no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional climbing ramps or stairs; and frequent balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling. (Filing No. 8-2 at 22.) At step four, ...

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