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Hicks v. Colvin

United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, New Albany Division

May 15, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


Tim A. Baker United States Magistrate Judge

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Mattie Hicks appeals the Administrative Law Judge’s decision denying her application for supplemental security income. Hicks filed for supplemental security income on March 22, 2010, and alleges her disability began on January 1, 2009. [Filing No. 13-2, at ECF p. 11.] Hicks’s alleged impairments include cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease, asthma, Leiden factor V deficiency, and bipolar disorder. The ALJ found her physical impairments to be severe, her bipolar disorder to be non-severe, and found that Hicks had a residual functional capacity[1] to perform light work with restrictions. Hicks argues that the ALJ did not consider all the relevant medical evidence, failed to discuss Hicks’s GAF scores, [2] and failed to provide the vocational expert a hypothetical question that accounted for Hicks’s bipolar disorder. The Commissioner argues the ALJ supported his decision with substantial evidence and built the requisite logical bridge. For reasons set forth below, the Magistrate Judge recommends that Hicks’s brief in support of appeal [Filing No. 17] be granted and the Commissioner’s decision be remanded.

II. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

The Social Security regulations provide a five-step sequential inquiry to determine whether a plaintiff is disabled: whether the plaintiff (1) is currently unemployed, (2) has a severe impairment, (3) has an impairment that meets or equals one of the impairments listed as disabling in the Commissioner’s regulations, (4) is unable to perform past relevant work, and (5) is unable to perform any other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 512-13 (7th Cir. 2009). “An affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000). “A negative answer at any point, other than Step 3, ends the inquiry and leads to a determination that a claimant is not disabled.” Id. For a period of disability, the claimant must establish that she was disabled prior to her date last insured to be eligible for disability insurance benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.315(a)(1), 404.320(b)(2); Shideler v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 308, 311 (7th Cir. 2012).

The Court must uphold the ALJ’s decision if substantial evidence supports his findings. Blakes v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 565, 568 (7th Cir. 2003). “[T]he substantial evidence standard requires no more than such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. The ALJ need not mention every piece of evidence in the record, so long as he builds a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion. Denton v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th Cir. 2010).

B. Substantial evidence

Hicks claims that the ALJ failed to adequately discuss all her psychological evidence in finding her bipolar disorder non-severe. [Filing No. 17, at ECF p. 4.] Although the ALJ cites to medical records from June 18, October 19, and December 15, 2010, to support finding a non-severe limitation, Hicks argues the ALJ did not address the Lifespring Mental Health notes or her suicide attempt in June 2011. [Filing No. 22, at ECF p. 1.] Specifically, Hicks argues that the ALJ dispatched with thirty-five pages of mental health treatment notes in two sentences. [Filing No. 17, at ECF p. 4-5; Filing No. 22, at ECF p. 1.] The Commissioner argues the ALJ’s citation to the Lifespring notes and reference to one month of Hicks’s treatment means he considered the evidence. [Filing No. 20, at ECF p. 5.]

The ALJ concluded Hicks’s bipolar disorder is non-severe because it “does not generally cause more than minimal limitation in the claimant’s ability to perform basic mental activities.” [Filing No. 13-2, at ECF p. 13.] In making his decision, the ALJ listed her reported symptoms of “crying spells, fatigue, anger, irritability, social isolation, increased sleep, distractibility, and panic.” [Filing No. 13-2, at ECF p. 13.] He acknowledged reports of her anxious and depressed mood, but noted that Hicks has a normal thought process, speech, and memory. Moreover, the ALJ reported that Hicks received medication and outpatient counseling that improved her symptoms. The ALJ further found that Hicks “was hospitalized in June 2011 after a suicide attempt, but by her outpatient session in July 2011, her condition improved significantly. Without more, the undersigned must find this impairment non-severe.” [Filing No. 13-2, at ECF p. 13.] The ALJ concluded that Hicks’s bipolar disorder was a non-severe impairment because it was consistent with other medical reports. To support this assertion, the ALJ provided a string citation of exhibits from the record. [Filing No. 13-2, at ECF p. 14.]

The ALJ failed to discuss how Hicks’s condition improved after her suicide attempt. Instead, he provided a conclusory statement that Hicks significantly improved by July 2011. “While the ALJ need not articulate his reasons for rejecting every piece of evidence, he must at least minimally discuss a claimant's evidence that contradicts the Commissioner's position.” Godbey v. Apfel, 238 F.3d 803, 808 (7th Cir. 2000). The ALJ failed to provide a single example to support his conclusion that she significantly improved in July 2011. Thus, the ALJ failed to build a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion that Hicks’s mental condition was non-severe.

Though the ALJ failed to provide evidence to support his conclusion that her condition significantly improved, he did cite to evidence to support his finding for Hicks’s bipolar disorder.

The ALJ found Hicks’s bipolar disorder was non-severe because Hicks only had a mild limitation with her daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence and pace. [Filing No. 13-2, at ECF p. 14.] The ALJ reported that Hicks was capable of preparing simple meals and cleaned with her children’s help. He also found her social functioning mildly limited as she had no history of interpersonal conflicts. The ALJ further noted that Hicks went shopping with her children and played bingo. [Filing No. 13-2, at ECF p. 14.] While the ALJ provided evidence to support his mild limitation finding, he only cited to medical reports from October and December 2010. The ALJ failed to include any evidence from the reports created after Hicks’s June 2011 suicide attempt to support his finding that Hicks’s daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence, and pace was mildly limited by her bipolar disorder. The ALJ’s failure to reference this significant evidence in the record precludes a finding that the decision below is supported by substantial evidence.

The Commissioner argues that any error on the part of the ALJ was harmless. [Filing No. 20, at ECF p. 10.] Under the harmless error standard, the Court must be able to predict with great confidence the same result on remand making remand not necessary or productive. McKinzey v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 892 (7th Cir. 2011). In reviewing the facts, the Magistrate Judge finds this case a close call. During her July 7 outpatient counseling session, the treatment notes show Hicks described her new church’s support system, discussed the boundaries she was setting with her sons, and mentioned she began talking with her spouse again. [Filing No. 13-19, at ECF p. 18.] On July 20, a clinician noted she was actively working to reconcile with her husband. [Filing No. 13-9, at ECF p. 20.] But on July 21, Hicks discussed her decision to have her son and grandson live with her, and she expressed “frustration with realizing that her interaction with her son’s [sic] have triggered her depressive symptoms to worsen.” Hicks further discussed ...

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