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Judd v. Colvin

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

December 29, 2016

COURTNEY M. JUDD, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Hon. Jane Magnus-Stinson, Chief Judge.

         Plaintiff Courtney Judd applied for disability benefits under the Social Security Act on March 15, 2013. [Filing No. 14-2 at 17.] Her claim was denied both initially and on reconsideration, and a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Ronald T. Jordan on January 13, 2015. [Filing No. 14-2 at 17.] On January 23, 2015, the ALJ issued an opinion concluding that Ms. Judd was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. [Filing No. 14-2 at 17.] The Appeals Council denied her request for review on February 17, 2016, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision subject to judicial review. [Filing No. 14-2 at 2.] Ms. Judd filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) on November 20, 2015, asking this Court to review her denial of benefits. [Filing No. 1.]

         I.

         Standard of Review

         “The Social Security Act authorizes payment of disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income to individuals with disabilities.” Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214 (2002). “The statutory definition of ‘disability' has two parts. First, it requires a certain kind of inability, namely, an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. Second it requires an impairment, namely, a physical or mental impairment, which provides reason for the inability. The statute adds that the impairment must be one that has lasted or can be expected to last . . . not less than 12 months.” Id. at 217.

         When an applicant appeals an adverse benefits decision, this Court's role is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). Because the ALJ “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008), this Court must afford the ALJ's credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong, ” Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

         The ALJ must apply the five-step inquiry set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), evaluating the following, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently [un]employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the [Commissioner]; (4) whether the claimant can perform [her] past work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.

Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted) (alterations in original). “If a claimant satisfies steps one, two, and three, [she] will automatically be found disabled. If a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then [she] must satisfy step four. Once step four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.” Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).

         After Step Three, but before Step Four, the ALJ must determine a claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) by evaluating “all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009). In doing so, the ALJ “may not dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling.” Id.The ALJ uses the RFC at Step Four to determine whether the claimant can perform his own past relevant work, and if not, at Step Five to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e), (g). The burden of proof is on the claimant for Steps One through Four; only at Step Five does the burden shift to the Commissioner. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

         If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits “is appropriate only where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).

         II.

         Relevant Background

         Ms. Judd was born in 1989. [Filing No. 14-2 at 27.] After being initially tested in elementary school, Ms. Judd was diagnosed as mildly mentally handicapped. [Filing No. 14-6 at 70.] As a result, she attended special education classes through high school and obtained a certificate of completion. [Filing No. 14-2 at 46.]

         In February of 2010, Ms. Judd was evaluated by Dr. Albert Fink. [Filing No. 14-7 at 3.] Dr. Fink administered the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (Fourth Edition) (“WAIS-IV”) test and assessed a full scale IQ of 65, a score in the first percentile. [Filing No. 14-7 at 4.] Dr. Fink observed that Ms. Judd “did not appear to concentrate well during formal testing suggesting that the results obtained may well be an under estimate of actual ability.” [Filing No. 14-7 at 3.] Dr. Fink diagnosed Ms. Judd with borderline intellectual functioning and a reading disorder (by history). [Filing No. 14-7 at 5.] In October of 2010, Ms. Judd was evaluated by Dr. Betty Unger Watson. [Filing No. 14-7 at 38.] Dr. Watson diagnosed Ms. Judd with “possible mild mental retardation or borderline intellectual functioning.” [Filing No. 14-7 at 41.] Also in October 2010, Ms. Judd was evaluated by Dr. Deborah Zera. [Filing No. 14-7 at 43.] Dr. Zera diagnosed Ms. Judd with “mild mental retardation, ” ruling out borderline intellectual functioning and learning disabilities. [Filing No. 14-7 at 44.] Neither Dr. Watson nor Dr. Zera administered an IQ test.

         In December of 2010, Ms. Judd was evaluated by Dr. Eileen Schellhammer, a licensed school psychologist. [Filing No. 14-9 at 15.] Dr. Schellhammer evaluated Ms. Judd using the Stanford Binet Intelligence Scale (Fifth Edition) and assessed a full scale IQ of 57. [Filing No. 14-9 at 19.] On the Wide Range Achievement Test IV (“WRAT-IV”), Ms. Judd “showed basic skills at the late second to mid-third grade equivalence, ” with a reading level assessed at grade 2.9. [Filing No. 14-9 at 19.] In April of 2013, Ms. Judd was again evaluated by Dr. Fink. [Filing No. 14-7 at 65.] He diagnosed Ms. Judd with a reading disorder and borderline intellectual functioning. [Filing No. 14-7 at 66.] Dr. Fink did not administer an IQ test.

         Ms. Judd has not been able to obtain a driver's license, which she testified was because she could not pass the written examination portion of the test. [Filing No. 14-2 at 44.] She was previously employed at a daycare and as a cafeteria worker. [Filing No. 14-2 at 45-46.]

         Using the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the Social Security Administration in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ ultimately concluded that Ms. Judd is not disabled. [Filing No. 14-2 at 28.] The ALJ found as follows:

• At Step One of the analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Judd meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2015, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity[1] since her alleged onset date of October 1, 2005. [Filing No. 14-2 at 19.]
• At Step Two of the analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Judd has the following severe impairments: mental handicap. [Filing No. 14-2 at 19.]
• At Step Three of the analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Judd does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. [Filing No. 14-2 at 19.] The ALJ considered various listings, but ultimately found that Ms. Judd does not meet any of them. [Filing No. 14-2 at 20-23.]
• After Step Three but before Step Four, the ALJ found that Ms. Judd has the RFC to do as follows:
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the work must require only simple, repetitive tasks requiring no independent judgment regarding basic work processes. Work goals from day to day should be ...

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