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Torres v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

September 15, 2014

JOSE ANTONIO TORRES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

PAUL R. CHERRY, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on a Complaint [DE 1], filed by Plaintiff Jose Antonio Torres on April 12, 2013, and a Plaintiff's Brief in Support of His Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner of Social Security [DE 16], filed by Plaintiff on September 26, 2013. Plaintiff requests that the November 21, 2011 decision of the Administrative Law Judge denying his claims for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") be reversed and remanded for further proceedings. On January 9, 2014, the Commissioner filed a response, and Plaintiff filed a reply on January 22, 2014. For the following reasons, the Court grants Plaintiff's request for remand.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and diabetes. On January 26, 2009, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging an onset date of October 25, 2008, based on schizophrenia and depression. The applications were denied initially on May 29, 2009, and upon reconsideration on September 1, 2009. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing, which was held on October 25, 2010, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Marlene R. Abrams. In appearance were Plaintiff, his attorney Thomas J. Scully III, impartial medical expert Kathleen M. O'Brien, Psy.D., and vocational expert Cheryl R. Hoiseth. The ALJ issued a written decision denying benefits on November 21, 2011, making the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2012.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 25, 2008, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1520(b), 404.1571 et seq., 416.920(b) and 416.971 et seq. ).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: paranoid schizophrenia; substance abuse; and substance induced psychosis (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The claimant's impairments, including the substance use disorder, meet Section 12.03 of 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d) and 416.920(d)).
5. If the claimant stopped the substance use, the remaining limitations would cause more than a minimal impact on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities; therefore, the claimant would continue to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.
6. If the claimant stopped the substance use, the claimant would not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the impairments listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d) and 416.920(d)).
7. If the claimant stopped the substance use, the claimant would have the residual functional capacity to perform work at all exertional levels handling simple, routine tasks.
8. If the claimant stopped the substance use, the claimant would be able to perform his past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
9. The claimant was born in 1962 and was 48 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 4165.963).
10. The claimant has at least a high school education or equivalent, and is able to communicate in English. relevant work is unskilled (20 CFR 404.1568 and 416.968).
12. The substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability because the claimant would not be disabled if he stopped the substance use (20 CFR 404.1520(g), 404.1535, 416.920(g) and 416.935). Because the substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, the claimant has not been disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time from the alleged onset date through the date of this decision.

(AR 10-22).

On February 21, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, leaving the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. On April 12, 2013, Plaintiff filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for review of the Agency's decision.

The parties filed forms of consent to have this case assigned to a United States Magistrate Judge to conduct all further proceedings and to order the entry of a final judgment in this case. Therefore, this Court has jurisdiction to decide this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Social Security Act authorizes judicial review of the final decision of the agency and indicates that the Commissioner's factual findings must be accepted as conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Thus, a court reviewing the findings of an ALJ will reverse only if the findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ has applied an erroneous legal standard. See Briscoe v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence consists of "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005) (quoting Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003)).

A court reviews the entire administrative record but does not reconsider facts, re-weigh the evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See Boiles v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 421, 425 (7th Cir. 2005); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000); Butera v. Apfel, 173 F.3d 1049, 1055 (7th Cir. 1999). Thus, the question upon judicial review of an ALJ's finding that a claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is not whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled, but whether the ALJ "uses the correct legal standards and the decision is supported by substantial evidence." Roddy v. Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2010); Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 734-35 (7th Cir. 2006); Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004)). "[I]f the Commissioner commits an error of law, " the Court may reverse the decision "without regard to the volume of evidence in support of the factual findings." White v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 369, 373 (7th Cir. 1999) (citing Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997)).

At a minimum, an ALJ must articulate her analysis of the evidence in order to allow the reviewing court to trace the path of her reasoning and to be assured that the ALJ considered the important evidence. See Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002); Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 307 (7th Cir. 1995); Green v. Shalala, 51 F.3d 96, 101 (7th Cir. 1995). An ALJ must "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [the] conclusion' so that, as a reviewing court, we may assess the validity of the agency's final decision and afford [a claimant] meaningful review." Giles v. Astrue, 483 F.3d 483, 487 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Scott, 297 F.3d at 595)); see also O'Connor-Spinner, 627 F.3d at 618 ("An ALJ need not specifically address every piece of evidence, but must provide a logical bridge' between the evidence and [the ALJ's] conclusions."); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 889 (7th Cir. 2001) ("[T]he ALJ's analysis must provide some glimpse into the reasoning behind [the] decision to deny benefits.").

DISABILITY STANDARD

To be eligible for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he suffers from a "disability" as defined by the Social Security Act and regulations. The Act defines "disability" as an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). To be found disabled, the claimant's impairment must not only prevent him from doing his previous work, but considering his age, education, and work experience, it must also prevent him from engaging in any other type of substantial gainful activity that exists in significant numbers in the economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e)-(f), 416.920(e)-(f).

When a claimant alleges a disability, Social Security regulations provide a five-step inquiry to evaluate whether the claimant is entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The steps are: (1) Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity? If yes, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no, the inquiry proceeds to step two; (2) Does the claimant have an impairment or combination of impairments that are severe? If not, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if yes, the inquiry proceeds to step three; (3) Do(es) the impairment(s) meet or equal a listed impairment in the appendix to the regulations? If yes, the claimant is automatically considered disabled; if not, then the inquiry proceeds to step four; (4) Can the claimant do the claimant's past relevant work? If yes, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no, then the inquiry proceeds to step five; (5) Can the claimant perform other work given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and experience? If yes, then the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v); see also Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699-700 (7th Cir. 2004).

At steps four and five, the ALJ must consider an assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). The RFC "is an administrative assessment of what work-related activities an individual can perform despite [the individual's] limitations." Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1178 (7th Cir. 2001). The RFC should be based on evidence in the record. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 676 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3)). The claimant bears the burden of proving steps one through four, whereas the burden at step five is on the ALJ. Zurawski, 245 F.3d at 886; see also Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. Medical History

1. Treatment History

Plaintiff was born in 1962 and was 49 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision.

In 2008, treating psychiatrist Dr. Mohammed Arshad, M.D., diagnosed Mr. Torres with paranoid schizophrenia.

On a February 26, 2009 intake evaluation form, completed by staff of Miller Beach Terrace, an assisted-living facility where Mr. Torres periodically resided, the evaluator noted that Plaintiff's mood was often calm and his affect was congruent with his mood but that he appeared anxious and demonstrated mild psychomotor agitation. Plaintiff was guarded when discussing the history of his mental illness. Mental health personnel confirmed a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and determined that Mr. Torres' then-current Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score was between 41 and 50 and that he had a prior score between 31 and 41.

Plaintiff reported to the evaluator that he had abstained from alcohol use for the prior five years. However, it was noted that reports from previous providers and nursing staff at Miller Beach Terrace are that Plaintiff continued to abuse alcohol. When asked about this, Plaintiff responded, "I do still drink to numb the pain of my choices and to not think about how much I have disappointed my family." (AR 392). The evaluator wrote: "Client admitted that his mental illness prevents him from holding onto a job long enough to become independent. However, when queried about whether or not his long and continued history of substance abuse could also be a cause of him not being able to maintain employment client became evasive and minimized his usage." (AR 394). Plaintiff reported that he heard voices daily and was having difficulty maintaining employment. The evaluator noted that reports from medical providers showed that Plaintiff had a diagnosis of drug induced psychosis and substance abuse in 2005. No records could be located prior to 2005.

In March 2009, treating psychiatrist Dr. Hisham Sadek, M.D., prescribed Trazodone, Fluphenazine, Prolixin Decanoate, and Cogentin to ...


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