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Smith v. Saul

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

January 9, 2020

SABRINA SMITH, 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 Sabrina Smith's Brief in Support of Plaintiff's Complaint to Review Decision of Commissioner of Social Security Administration (ECF No. 20), filed on March 12, 2019. Defendant Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), filed his Memorandum in Support of Commissioner's Decision (ECF No. 21) on April 19, 2019. Smith filed her Reply Brief (ECF No. 23) on May 17, 2019. This matter is now ripe for review.

         A. Procedural History

         On March 30, 2015, Smith filed an application for supplemental security income under title XVI of the Social Security Act. The claim was denied initially on July 15, 2015, and again on reconsideration on October 14, 2015. On May 16, 2017, Smith appeared in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ issued his decision on September 18, 2017, finding that Smith was not disabled (the “Decision”).

         Smith filed her Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order on September 22, 2017. The Appeals Council denied her Request for Review on July 9, 2018. Smith then sought judicial review with this Court.

         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 her 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 her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work, but also any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering her 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. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 885 (7th Cir. 2001).

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Smith had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 30, 2015. At step two, the ALJ determined that Smith had the following severe impairments: degenerative joint disease, muscular tendinitis, osteoarthritis, history of nephrolithiasis and kidney stones, history of hyperthyroidism and Graves' disease, hypoglycemia, obesity, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, ...


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