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Morris v. Astrue

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

March 26, 2014

SCOTT T. MORRIS, Plaintiff,
MICHAEL ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


RESA L. SPRINGMANN, District Judge.

The Plaintiff, Scott T. Morris, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3). The Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner's decision is not based on substantial evidence and that the Commissioner erred as a matter of law in the denial of Social Security Disability benefits.


The Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on October 11, 2010, alleging an onset date of October 8, 2010, due to a back injury, deteriorating vision, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). The Plaintiff's applications were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. The Plaintiff then requested a hearing in front of an administrative law judge, which was held on November 16, 2011. The Plaintiff was represented by counsel and had a vocational expert testify at the hearing. On January 18, 2012, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), Bryan J. Bernstein, found that the Plaintiff was limited to a range of medium work and was not disabled because he could perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. The Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review on March 19, 2012. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review on August 8, 2012, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

On September 21, 2012, the Plaintiff filed a Complaint [ECF No. 1] in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner's decision.


The Plaintiff claims to be disabled based on deteriorating vision, back and neck pain, and psychological limitations from PTSD. The Plaintiff's opening brief focuses significant attention on the issue of vision loss. Therefore, the Court considers the factual background on vision loss separately from the other issues raised by the Plaintiff, which involve exertional capacity and mental health.

A. Vision Loss

Although the Plaintiff has had longstanding blindness in his right eye, he stopped working in his job driving a truck when he began experiencing impaired vision in his left eye. On October 13, 2010, Dr. Jon Mark, the Plaintiff's Optometrist, wrote a letter stating that the Plaintiff suffered from "longstanding blindness in the right eye and recent visual impairment in the left eye of a nature yet to be determined." (Tr. 306.) On October 19, 2010, Dr. Mark evaluated the Plaintiff and observed uncorrected visual acuity of hand motion at six inches in the right eye and 20/50 in the left eye. Specifically, in a note written November 8, 2010, Dr. Mark wrote that in the left eye "visual acuity was 20/50 and visual field was reduced to less than 20 degrees central, cause has not been determined.... He is currently legally blind in both eyes and should limit his activities accordingly." (Tr. 297.)

On December 27, 2010, the Plaintiff met with Dr. Earl Braunlin for a consultative ophthalmology examination. Dr. Braunlin observed visual acuity of 20/70 in the left eye. (Tr. 348.) Under "best corrected visual acuity (Snellen), " Dr. Braunlin noted 20/50 for the left eye in the place marked "Distant." (Tr. 349.) Right next to where Dr. Braunlin recorded the 20/50 observation he wrote "I doubt if the recorded vision is reliable here." ( Id. ) Again at the end of the report, Dr. Braunlin wrote, "I do not feel his vision as recorded was reliable." (Tr. 350.) Finally, at the end of the report Dr. Braunlin wrote, "I believe the vision in his left eye is better than the recorded vision of 20/50. I believe his real vision with the left eye may be closer to a normal 20/20 vision."[1] ( Id. )

On March 16, 2011, the Plaintiff met with Dr. Valerie Purvin for a consultative neuroophthalmologic examination. Dr. Purvin recorded an uncorrected visual acuity in the left eye of 20/60 and a corrected visual acuity of 20/25. (Tr. 370.) The Plaintiff points out in his brief that Dr. Purvin stated that his visual fields were "markedly constricted and tubular (non-organic)." ( Id. ) Dr. Purvin also stated that "[w]hen the visual field was tested without the patient's understanding of the test (specifically, finger-nose maneuver) his field was full." ( Id. ) Dr. Purvin concluded by stating that the Plaintiff "appears to have visual loss in the left eye as well but on closer inspection this turns out to be non-organic. There is no objective evidence of any organic disease affecting the vision in his left eye." ( Id. )

B. Exertional Capacity and Mental Health

Other than issues related to vision loss, the Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's Residual Functional Capacity findings with regard to exertional capacity and mental issues. Due to the nature of the legal arguments at issue, an extensive factual background is not required. The ALJ's opinion provides more significant detail regarding the medical records in this case. (Tr. 29-36.) The Court addresses only the factual background necessary for this decision. The Plaintiff's brief and the ALJ's opinion provide additional factual details.

The Plaintiff has complained of back pain, neck pain, and PTSD. The Plaintiff developed symptoms consistent with PTSD after his return home from contracting work in Iraq in October 2009, as observed by Dr. Russell G. Coulter-Kern, Ph.D. (Exhibit 3F, p.1). His condition improved with medication management as reported by Dr. Tina Lawson. (Tr. 319 & 353.) The Plaintiff was referred to, and met with, Dr. Hani Ahmad, a psychiatrist, on October 19, 2011. Dr. Ahmad diagnosed the Plaintiff with PTSD and noted that he had "poor coping skills." (Tr. 473-77.) Dr. Ahmad assessed the Plaintiff with a Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") score ranging from 50 to 70. (Tr. 31, 477.) A GAF score of 61-70 reflects "some mild symptoms" or "some difficulty in social, occupational, or school functioning... but generally functioning pretty well." (Def. Br. 11 (quoting American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 32-33 (4th ed., Text Rev. 2000) ( DSM-IV-TR )). After reviewing Dr. Ahmad's findings, the ALJ determined that the higher end of the score range, 70, was most reflective of the Plaintiff's functioning and symptoms. (Tr. 31.)

The ALJ's opinion and the Plaintiff's brief provide extensive details related to exertional capacity. An extensive summary of the facts is unnecessary for the purposes of this opinion. The Plaintiff has focused the vast majority of his legal arguments on the issue of vision loss. At the same time, the few legal arguments made with respect to exertional capacity do not require additional factual background, as will be made clear below.


An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits as required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful employment since the claimed onset date of October 8, 2010, which satisfied the step one inquiry. At step two, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had an impairment, or impairments, that should be considered severe. Step three requires the ALJ to "consider the medical severity of [the] impairment" to determine whether the impairment "meets or equals one of [the] listings in" appendix 1.20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant's impairment rises to this level, he earns a presumption of disability "without considering [his] age, education, and work experience." Id. at § 404.1520(d). But if the impairment falls short, an ALJ must move on to step four and examine the claimant's "residual functional capacity"-the types of things he can still do physically despite his limitations-to determine whether he can perform "past relevant work, " id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), or, failing that, whether the claimant can "make an adjustment to other work" given his "age, education, and work experience, " id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(v), which constitutes step five of the analysis. In this case the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairment did not meet or equal any of the listings in appendix 1. At step four, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's impairments pose more than minimal restrictions on his capacity for work and that he does not have the capacity to perform past relevant work. At step five, however, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff is able to make an adjustment, based on his "age, education, and work experience, " to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c) and § 416.967(c), "except that he has monocular vision with depth perception deficits." (Tr. 29.)

The Plaintiff alleges that the Commissioner's step three, presumptive disability analysis is not supported by substantial evidence. More specifically, the Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner committed legal error by determining that the uncertainty as to the cause of the Plaintiff's vision loss precluded a finding of statutory blindness under Title XVI. Finally, the Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner ignored highly probative evidence regarding the probably psychogenic cause of the visual field loss in the Plaintiff's left eye and that the visual loss satisfied the criteria in the Listings, the Social Security regulations, and the Social Security Act itself.

The Plaintiff also challenges the Commissioner's Residual Functional Capacity analysis claiming that the conclusions are not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, the Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner ignored objective medical evidence regarding all the Plaintiff's limitations, failed to translate medical opinion into a vocational limitation, which caused the vocational expert's testimony to be unreliable, and failed to cite a specific job the claimant could perform.

In an appeal from the denial of social security benefits, the court is not free to replace the ALJ's estimate of the medical evidence with its own. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009) (stating that the court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ). Instead, the court reviews the ALJ's decision for substantial evidence, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), meaning that the court ensures that the decision rests on "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, " Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). When an ALJ recommends that the agency deny benefits, it must first "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion." Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000). "In other words, as with any well-reasoned decision, the ALJ must rest its denial of benefits on adequate evidence contained in the record and must explain why contrary evidence does not persuade." Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008). Where conflicting evidence would allow reasonable minds to differ as to whether the claimant is disabled, it is the ALJ's responsibility to resolve those conflicts. Elder ...

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