United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
MARK J. DINSMORE, Magistrate Judge.
Lavell Patterson ("Plaintiff") requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). See 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d). For the reasons set forth below, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.
Procedural History and Background
Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on June 17, 2011, alleging an onset of disability on May 15, 2011. [R. at 11.] He was 39 years old at the time of the alleged onset and was working part-time as a support advocate or home attendant at the time of his application. [R. at 36.] He alleged disability due to anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder. [ Id. ]
The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiff's claim initially on August 8, 2011 and upon reconsideration on December 20, 2011. [R. at 11.] Plaintiff requested a hearing, and on November 9, 2012, Plaintiff appeared before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Marc C. Ziercher. [ Id. ] Also present were Plaintiff's attorney, Patrick Mulvany, and vocational expert Jay Franklin. [R. at 30.] The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time from the alleged onset date through the date of his January 24, 2013 decision. [R. at 24.] The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on February 7, 2014, thereby rendering the ALJ's decision final. [R. at 1-3.] Plaintiff filed his complaint with this Court on March 25, 2014. [Dkt. 1.]
To be eligible for DIB, a claimant must have a disability under 42 U.S.C. § 423. Disability is defined 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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). In order to be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that his physical or mental limitations prevent him from doing not only his previous work, but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering his age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner employs a five-step sequential analysis. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled despite his medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). At step two, if the claimant does not have a "severe" impairment (i.e., one that significantly limits his ability to perform basic work activities), he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, App. 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelve-month duration requirement; if so, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). At step five, if the claimant can perform any other work in the national economy, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).
In reviewing the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's findings of fact are conclusive and must be upheld by this Court "so long as substantial evidence supports them and no error of law occurred." Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). "Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. This court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008). The ALJ "need not evaluate in writing every piece of testimony and evidence submitted." Carlson v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 180, 181 (7th Cir. 1993). However, the "ALJ's decision must be based upon consideration of all the relevant evidence." Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994). To be affirmed, the ALJ must articulate her analysis of the evidence in her decision; while she "is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony, " she must "provide some glimpse into her reasoning... [and] build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to her conclusion." Dixon, 270 F.3d at 1176. The Court, that is, "must be able to trace the ALJ's path of reasoning" from the evidence to her conclusion. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 874 (7th Cir. 2000), as amended (Dec. 13, 2000).
The ALJ's Decision
The ALJ first determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the act through December 31, 2015. [R. at 13.] At step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of May 15, 2011. [ Id. ]
At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following "severe" impairments: "bipolar disorder" and "an anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified." [R. at 14.] At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a Listed impairment. [ Id. ] The ALJ considered and rejected Listings 12.04 (affective disorders) and 12.06 (anxiety-related disorder). [R. at 14-15.] In doing so, he applied the SSA's special technique for evaluating mental disorders. See 20 C.F.R. § Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. He thus considered the "paragraph B" criteria and determined that Plaintiff had mild restrictions in activities of daily living; moderate restrictions in social functioning; moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace; and no episodes of decompensation. [R. at 14-15.] He then determined that the evidence did not establish the presence of the "paragraph C" criteria. [R. at 15.]
The ALJ next analyzed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). He concluded that Plaintiff:
has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: He can perform goal-oriented rather than production-oriented work. He can understand, remember, and perform simple work tasks at GED Reasoning Level 02 (as defined in the Selected Characteristics of Occupations). He can have inconsequential or superficial interaction with the general public (i.e., no sustained conversations, e.g., ticket taker). He can have inconsequential or superficial interaction with coworkers (i.e., no sustained conversations, e.g., mail clerk). He can perform work that involves routine and repetitive tasks (i.e., no more than frequent changes in core work duties on a weekly basis). He can perform productive work tasks for up to an average of 96 to 100% of an 8-hour workday, not including the typical morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks.
[R. at 16] The ALJ concluded at step four that this RFC did not allow Plaintiff to perform his past relevant work as a home attendant. [R. at 21.] At step five, the ALJ determined that a person with Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC could perform jobs such as church janitor and night office cleaner. [R. at 22.] Because these jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled. [R. at 22-23.]
Plaintiff presents four arguments for remand. He first broadly contends that "[s]ubstantial evidence fails to support the ALJ's erroneous determination that Lavell Patterson was not disabled[.]" [Dkt. 17 at 10.] He then argues that the ALJ erred by not summoning a medical advisor to testify on whether Plaintiff's combined mental impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, such as Listing 12.03. [ Id. at 16.] Next, he contends that the ALJ's credibility determination was patently erroneous because it was contrary to Social Security Ruling 96-7p. [ Id. at 19.] Finally, he argues that the ALJ's RFC analysis and hypothetical questions did not properly account for his functional limitations, such that the ALJ's step five conclusion was erroneous. [ Id. at 21.]
A. Substantial Evidence and Disability Determination
Plaintiff's broad first argument contains three narrower claims. He argues that the ALJ erred by rejecting a treating physician's opinion on Plaintiff's functional capacity [ id. at 12-13]; that the ALJ improperly refused to consider Plaintiff's low GAF scores; [ id. 10-12]; and that the ALJ erred by not specifically discussing Listing 12.03 during step three of the sequential evaluation. [ Id. at 12-13.]
1. Treating Physician's Opinion
In October 2012, treating physician Dr. Dennis Anderson completed a Mental Residual Functional Capacity form on which he indicated that Plaintiff was "markedly limited" in twenty different functional areas. [R. at 957-58.] These areas included the ability to understand and remember tasks; sustain concentration and pace; interact appropriately with the general public; and respond appropriately to changes in work settings. [ Id. ] The ALJ gave ...