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Dohner v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

December 18, 2019

THOMAS L. DOHNER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration[1], Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          HOLLY A. BRADY JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Thomas L. Dohner's Brief (ECF No. 19), filed on January 31, 2019. Defendant Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), filed his Memorandum in Support of Commissioner's Decision (ECF No. 22) on April 11, 2019. Dohner filed his Reply Brief (ECF No. 23) on April 25, 2019. This matter is now ripe for review.

         A. Procedural History

         Dohner filed for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on November 6, 2014. His application was denied initially and on reconsideration. On May 17, 2017, Dohner had a hearing on his application before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ issued his decision (R. 29-37) on September 14, 2017, finding that Dohner was not disabled (the “Decision”).

         Dohner challenged the ALJ's decision by filing a request for review with the Appeals Counsel, but that request was denied on June 6, 2018. Dohner then filed his Complaint (ECF No. 1) on August 8, 2018.

         B. Legal Analysis

         1. Standard of Review

         A claimant who is found to be “not disabled” may challenge the Commissioner's final decision in federal court. This Court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and free from legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla of proof.” Kepple v. Massanari, 268 F.3d 513, 516 (7th Cir. 2001). It means “evidence a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the decision.” Murphy v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 630, 633 (7th Cir. 2007); see also Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 305 (7th Cir. 1995) (substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”) (citation and quotations omitted).

         In determining whether there is substantial evidence, the Court reviews the entire record. Kepple, 268 F.3d at 516. However, review is deferential. Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). A reviewing court will not “reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003) (quoting Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000)).

         Nonetheless, if, after a “critical review of the evidence, ” the ALJ's decision “lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues, ” this Court will not affirm it. Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539 (citations omitted). While the ALJ need not discuss every piece of evidence in the record, he “must build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [the] conclusion.” Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). Further, the ALJ “may not select and discuss only that evidence that favors his ultimate conclusion, ” Diaz, 55 F.3d at 308, but “must confront the evidence that does not support his conclusion and explain why it was rejected, ” Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 474 (7th Cir. 2004). Ultimately, the ALJ must “sufficiently articulate his assessment of the evidence to assure” the court that he “considered the important evidence” and to enable the court “to trace the path of [his] reasoning.” Carlson v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 180, 181 (7th Cir. 1993) (quoting Stephens v. Heckler, 766 F.2d 284, 287 (7th Cir. 1985) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         2. The ALJ's Decision

         A person suffering from a disability that renders him unable to work may apply to the Social Security Administration for disability benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) (defining disability 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”). To be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that his physical or mental limitations prevent him from doing not only his previous work, but also any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering his age, education, and work experience. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         If a claimant's application is denied initially and on reconsideration, he may request a hearing before an ALJ. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(b)(1). An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits: (1) whether the claimant is currently employed, (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment, (3) whether the claimant's impairment is one that the Commissioner considers conclusively disabling, (4) if the claimant does not have a conclusively disabling impairment, whether he has the residual functional capacity to perform his past relevant work, and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 885 (7th Cir. 2001).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Dohner had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 16, 2015. At step two, the ALJ found that Dohner had the following severe impairments: hypertension, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, and shoulder arthropathy. The ...


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