United States District Court, N.D. Indiana
JUSTIN K. MONTEZ, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
THERESA L. SPRINGMANN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FORT WAYNE DIVISION.
The Plaintiff, Justin K. Montez, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his application for Supplemental Security Income. In May 2011, the Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI, alleging disability beginning on February 17, 2011. An ALJ held a hearing in February 2013, at which the Plaintiff, who was represented by an attorney, the Plaintiff’s mother, and a vocational expert (VE) all testified. On March 22, 2013, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff was not disabled. The Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ decision, and on June 27, 2014, the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff’s request for review. On August 25, 2014, the Plaintiff initiated this civil action for judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The decision of the ALJ is the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denies a request for review. Liskowitz v. Astrue, 559 F.3d 736, 739 (7th Cir. 2009). A court will affirm the Commissioner’s findings of fact and denial of disability benefits if they are supported by substantial evidence. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It must be “more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Even if “reasonable minds could differ” about the disability status of the claimant, the court must affirm the Commissioner’s decision as long as it is adequately supported. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).
It is the duty of the ALJ to weigh the evidence, resolve material conflicts, make independent findings of fact, and dispose of the case accordingly. Perales, 402 U.S. at 399–400. In this substantial-evidence determination, the court considers the entire administrative record but does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute the court’s own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Nevertheless, the court conducts a “critical review of the evidence” before affirming the Commissioner’s decision, and the decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an inadequate discussion of the issues. Id.
The ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, but the ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009). If the Commissioner commits an error of law, remand is warranted without regard to the volume of evidence in support of the factual findings. Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997).
Disability benefits are available only to those individuals who can establish disability under the terms of the Social Security Act. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir.1998). Specifically, the claimant must be unable “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). He must show that his “impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
The Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential evaluation process to be used in determining whether the claimant has established a disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (i)-(v). The first step is to determine whether the claimant is presently engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA). The Plaintiff was not engaged in SGA, so the ALJ moved on to the second step, which is to determine whether the claimant had a “severe” impairment or combination of impairments. An impairment is “severe” if it significantly limits the claimant’s physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff’s schizoaffective disorder was severe.
At step three, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff did not have an impairment, or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the impairments listed by the Administration as being so severe that it presumptively precludes SGA. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1.
Because the Plaintiff’s impairment was found not to meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ was required, at step four, to determine the Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (RFC). RFC is an assessment of the claimant’s ability to perform sustained work-related physical and mental activities in light of his impairments. SSR 96–8p. The relevant mental work activities include understanding, remembering, and carrying out instructions; responding appropriately to supervision and co-workers; and handling work pressures in a work setting. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(c). The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels. However, he found that, due to his nonexertional limitations, the Plaintiff could only perform work involving simple tasks and simple work-related decisions, and only occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers, and the public.
At the final step of the evaluation, the ALJ determined that, in light of the Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that he could perform.
The Plaintiff argues three bases for reversal. First, he contends that the ALJ did not follow Social Security regulations in evaluating medical opinion evidence. Second, he argues that the ALJ did not include an assessment of all of his impairments in determining the RFC. His final argument is that substantial evidence did not support the ALJ’s finding that his psychotic symptoms strongly correlated to previous drug use.
Under the Commissioner’s Rulings and Regulations, the ALJ evaluates medical opinions differently depending on the source. Opinions from the claimant’s treating source are entitled to special consideration. In some instances-where the opinion is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques, and is “not inconsistent” with other substantial evidence-the ALJ must afford it “controlling weight.” SSR 96–8p; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). Even if the ALJ finds that the treating source opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, he may not simply reject it. SSR 96–2p. Rather, he must evaluate the opinion’s weight by looking at the length, nature and extent of the treatment relationship between the plaintiff and the physician; the degree to which the opinion is supported by the evidence; the opinion’s consistency with the record as a whole; whether the doctor is a specialist; and “other factors.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d). “In many cases, a treating source’s medical opinion will be entitled to the greatest ...