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Soga v. Colvin

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

September 28, 2016

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



         This matter is before the Court on a Complaint [DE 1], filed by Plaintiff Richard Wayne Soga Jr. on June 4, 2015, and a Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 17], filed by Plaintiff on September 23, 2015. Plaintiff requests that the May 7, 2013 decision of the Administrative Law Judge denying his claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income be reversed and remanded for further proceedings. On January 4, 2016, the Commissioner filed a response, and Plaintiff filed a reply on February 3, 2016. For the following reasons, the Court denies Plaintiff's request for remand.


         Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income on June 12, 2007, alleging disability since 1990. Following a hearing on March17, 2010, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision, which was appealed, and the Court vacated the decision and remanded for further proceedings. On December 17, 2012, ALJ Harry Kramzyk held a hearing. In attendance at the hearing were Plaintiff, Plaintiff's mother Diane Soga, an impartial vocational expert, and Plaintiff's attorney. On May 7, 2013, the ALJ issued a written decision denying benefits, making the following findings:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 12, 2007, the application date.
2. The claimant has the following severe impairment: Asperger's disorder.
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
4. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: the claimant can understand, remember, and carry out short, simple, repetitive instructions; the claimant is able to sustain attention/concentration for two-hour periods at a time, and for eight hours in the workday on short, simple, and repetitive instructions; the claimant can use judgment in making work decisions related to short, simple, and repetitive instructions; the claimant requires an occupation with only occasional coworker contact and supervision; the claimant requires an occupation with set routines and procedures and few changes during the workday; the claimant could have only superficial contact with the public on routine matters; the claimant cannot perform fast-pace production work; the claimant can maintain regular attendance, can perform activities within a schedule, and be punctual within customary tolerances.
5. The claimant has no past relevant work.
6. The claimant was born [in 1984] and was 22 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date the application was filed.
7. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English.
8. Transferability of job skills is not an issue because the claimant does not have past relevant work.
9. 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.
10. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since June 12, 2007, the date the application was filed.

(AR 562-78).

         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. § 416.1481. 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).


         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, 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 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. § 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. § 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. § 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 no, 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 no, 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 residual functional capacity (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. § 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 RFC. The RFC “is an administrative assessment of what work-related activities an individual can perform despite [his] 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 885-86; see also Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).


         1. Factual Background

         In 2003, more than four years before Plaintiff filed an application for benefits, Dr. Robert Coyle performed a neuropsychological evaluation of him. (AR 277). Plaintiff was a senior in high school, receiving special education assistance in reading. Dr. Coyle found him pleasant and cooperative; Plaintiff tested in the low average range on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-III. Plaintiff's capacity for abstraction and concept formation was intact, suggesting a “normal learning curve in being trained at a new job . . . . He should be flexible and adaptable on the job.” (AR 282). His memory and localization test scores were “exceptional.” (AR 283). His alertness and sustained concentration scores were normal to mildly impaired on the Seashore Rhythm and Speech-Sounds Perception test. On the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2, Plaintiff had moderately abnormal scores, with some problems in poor judgment, touchiness, and acting out. He appeared edgy, somewhat depressed and socially unforthcoming during testing, with a need for emotional support. Dr. Coyle saw a “mild degree of impairment” with good capacity for new learning, normal memory and adequate capacity for attention and concentration for vocational purposes.

         For the next three years, there are no pertinent medical records. In June 2006, Plaintiff's mother expressed concerns about Plaintiff's inattention, social problems, and inability to find work after finishing high school. (AR 293). On June 8, 2006, on a physical form, it is noted that Plaintiff had a normal mood, affect, memory, and judgment. Other examinations around this time showed a normal or euthymic mood, but a blunted affect. Plaintiff saw a licensed clinical social worker for stress management.

         Beginning in December 2006, Plaintiff met with an employment specialist and received other state vocational rehabilitation services. (AR 309). Plaintiff had excellent participation and applied for many jobs in 2007. There are few records documenting abnormal mental status findings between 2006 and the benefits application date of June 12, 2007.

         On August 24, 2007, Plaintiff had an internal medicine consultative examination with Dr. Saavedra, reporting agitation with loud noises and a short temper. (AR 328). Plaintiff denied any memory loss or concentration deficits. He was cooperative and understood basic commands without difficulty. Examination findings were normal.

         On September 19, 2007, Plaintiff saw Dr. Rini for a psychological consultative examination. (AR 360). Plaintiff reported fixating on things, difficulty connecting emotionally, conflicts with peers, mood swings, and concentration problems. Plaintiff said he could focus better when on medication. He said he had friends but that they tended to drift away. Plaintiff reported working for Regis for one month until he quit because it was too much driving. He reported that his previous work as a dishwasher at Baker's Square ended after 18 months when he quit because his manager wanted him to do something that he did not want to do. On examination, he repeated six digits forward and three digits in reverse and could recall all three household items after five minutes. He correctly performed almost all math calculations and serial sevens. He had a blunted affect, but reported feeling alright. Dr. Rini's diagnosis included Asperger Syndrome and a GAF score of 57. Dr. Rini opined that Plaintiff functioned in the normal range of intellectual ability, but was socially impaired, with below average concentration and average memory.

         Four months later, on October 1, 2007, Dr. William Shipley, Ph.D., reviewed Plaintiff's disability claim file for the Bureau of Disability Determination Services and concluded that Plaintiff might be precluded from successfully handling complex changing tasks and would likely not do well working with the general public. Dr. Shipley also opined that Plaintiff retained the ability to complete simple repetitive tasks on a sustained basis without special consideration. He assessed a mild restriction in activities of daily living and moderate restrictions in social functioning and in maintaining concentration, ...

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