United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division
AMENDED OPINION AND ORDER
PAUL R. CHERRY, Magistrate Judge.
This matter is before the Court on a Complaint [DE 1], filed by Plaintiff Peggy Sue Potrebic on April 12, 2013, and Plaintiff's Memorandum in Support of Her Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 19], filed on October 1, 2013. Plaintiff requests that the December 9, 2011 decision of the Administrative Law Judge denying her claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income be reversed for an award of benefits or remanded for further proceedings. On December 13, 2013, the Commissioner filed a response, and Plaintiff filed a reply on January 28, 2014. For the following reasons, the Court grants Plaintiff's request for remand.
Plaintiff Peggy Sue Potrebic suffers from bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and worsening rheumatoid arthritis in both hands with pain, swelling, and tenderness. She alleges disability due to bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis in both hands, chronic lower back pain, and depression.
On June 17, 2010, Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging an onset date of January 8, 2010. The applications were denied initially on October 5, 2010, and upon reconsideration on January 11, 2011. Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing, which was held on November 18, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") William E. Sampson. In appearance were Plaintiff, her attorney, and vocational expert Thomas Grzesik. The ALJ issued a written decision denying benefits on December 9, 2011, making the following findings:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 14, 2014.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 8, 2010, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq. ).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: mild degenerative joint disease in the hips; disc herniation at C4-C5; mild degenerative disc disease at L5-S1; rheumatoid arthritis; mild arthritis in the hands and major depressive disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 414.1567(a) and 416.967(a). The claimant could lift/carry and push/pull a maximum of 10 pounds; sit a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday and stand/walk a total of about two hours in an eight-hour workday. She could only occasionally use her hands. She is limited to simple, repetitive and routine tasks.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
7. The claimant was born [in 1966] and was 43 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is "not disabled, " whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 8, 2010, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).
On February 20, 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 his analysis of the evidence in order to allow the reviewing court to trace the path of his 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 [a reviewing court] 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 his 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.").
To be eligible for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that she 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 her from doing her previous work, but considering her age, education, and work experience, it must also prevent her 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 her 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).
In support of her request for reversal and an award of benefits or for remand and further proceedings, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ made several errors in determining Plaintiff's RFC and evaluating her credibility. The Court considers each in turn.
A. Residual Functional Capacity
The RFC is a measure of what an individual can do despite the limitations imposed by her impairments. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a), 416.945(a). The determination of a claimant's RFC is a legal decision rather than a medical one. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e)(1), 416.927(e)(2); Diaz, 55 F.3d at 306 n.2. The RFC is an issue at steps four and five of the sequential evaluation process. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, *3 (July 2, 1996). The ALJ's RFC finding must be supported by substantial evidence. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 870.
"The RFC assessment is a function-by-function assessment based upon all of the relevant evidence of an individual's ability to do work-related activities." SSR 96-8p, at *3. The relevant evidence includes medical history; medical signs and laboratory findings; the effects of symptoms, including pain, that are reasonably attributed to a medically determinable impairment; evidence from attempts to work; need for a structured living environment; and work evaluations, if available. Id. at *5. In arriving at an RFC, the ALJ "must consider all allegations of physical and mental limitations or restrictions and make every reasonable effort to ensure that the file contains sufficient evidence to assess RFC." Id. In addition, he "must consider limitations and restrictions imposed by all of an individual's impairments, even those that are not severe'" because they "may-when considered with limitations or restrictions due to other impairments-be critical to the outcome of a claim." Id. Plaintiff attacks several aspects of the ALJ's RFC determination.
1. Concentration, Persistence, or Pace
At step three of the sequential analysis, when analyzing the "paragraph B" criteria, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had "moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace." (AR 14). As recognized by the ALJ, the limitations identified in the "paragraph B" criteria are not a residual functional capacity assessment, but rather are used to rate the severity of mental impairments at steps two and three of the sequential evaluation process. In the RFC determination, the ALJ included a "limitation to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks." (AR 18). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by limiting her in the RFC to simple, repetitive, routine tasks to account for her moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace.
Generally, the medical evidence as well as the ALJ's discussion of that evidence appear to support the mental limitations in the RFC as accommodating Plaintiff's moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace. However, because the ALJ gave little weight to the opinion of Ann Lovko, Ph.D., the only medical source of record who translated a finding of moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace into functional limitations, remand is ...