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Cougill v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

August 26, 2016

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

          ERNEST V. COUGILL, Plaintiff, represented by Patrick Harold Mulvany.

          CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Defendant, represented by Kathryn E. Olivier, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE.


          DEBRA McVICKER LYNCH, Magistrate Judge.

         This matter was referred to the Magistrate Judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b) for a report and recommendation as to its appropriate disposition. (Dkt. 9) As addressed below, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the District Judge REVERSE AND REMAND the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration that plaintiff Ernest V. Cougill is not disabled.


         Mr. Cougill applied in April 2012 for Supplemental Security Income disability benefits (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging that he has been disabled since January 1, 2008. Acting for the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration following a hearing on November 14, 2013, administrative law judge Monica LaPolt issued a decision on January 29, 2014, finding Mr. Cougill not disabled. The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision on May 8, 2015, rendering the ALJ's decision for the Commissioner final. Mr. Cougill timely filed this civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the Commissioner's decision.

         Mr. Cougill contends that the ALJ erroneously evaluated the severity of his mental impairments and their effect on his functioning. As explained below, the court determines that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because (1) she did not advise the vocational expert of information material to a step five disability determination and, in fact, made a clear factual error regarding that information; (2) omitted from the RFC, without explanation, functional limitations described in the narrative portion of the opinion of state agency reviewers, although she purported to give great weight to the reviewers' opinion; and (3) even misstated the conclusions made by the same reviewers. In addition to these errors, the ALJ failed to provide a rational explanation why a limitation to simple, repetitive work addresses Mr. Cougill's particular deficits in concentration, persistence, or pace. Accordingly, the Commissioner's decision must be reversed and remanded.

         Standard for Proving Disability

         To prove disability, a claimant must show he is 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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Mr. Cougill is disabled if his impairments are of such severity that he is not able to perform the work he previously engaged in and, if based on his age, education, and work experience, he cannot engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The Social Security Administration ("SSA") has implemented these statutory standards by, in part, prescribing a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining disability. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.

         Step one asks if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if he is, then he is not disabled. Step two asks whether the claimant's impairments, singly or in combination, are severe; if they are not, then he is not disabled. A severe impairment is one that "significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). The third step is an analysis of whether the claimant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or medically equal the criteria of any of the conditions in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The Listing of Impairments includes medical conditions defined by criteria that the SSA has pre-determined are disabling, so that if a claimant meets all of the criteria for a listed impairment or presents medical findings equal in severity to the criteria for the most similar listed impairment, then the claimant is presumptively disabled and qualifies for benefits. Sims v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 424, 428 (7th Cir. 2002).

         If the claimant's impairments do not satisfy a listing, then his residual functional capacity (RFC) is determined for purposes of steps four and five. RFC is a claimant's ability to do work on a regular and continuing basis despite his impairment-related physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945. At the fourth step, if the claimant has the RFC to perform his past relevant work, then he is not disabled. The fifth step asks whether there is work in the relevant economy that the claimant can perform, based on his vocational profile (age, work experience, and education) and his RFC; if so, then he is not disabled.

         The individual claiming disability bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). If the claimant meets that burden, then the Commissioner has the burden at step five to show that work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, given his age, education, work experience, and functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(c)(2); Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004).

         Standard for Review of the ALJ's Decision

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's (or ALJ's) factual findings is deferential. A court must affirm if no error of law occurred and if the findings are supported by substantial evidence. Dixon v. Massanari,270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence means evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id. The standard demands more than a scintilla of evidentiary ...

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