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Brown v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

January 13, 2017

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


          Robert L. Miller, Jr., United States District Court Judge

         Felicia Brown seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423. The court has jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons that follow, the court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands the matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Background

         In January 2013, the Department of Veterans Affairs found that Ms. Brown, an Iraq war veteran, was disabled based on her service-connected schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type.[1] Ms. Brown applied for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits later that year. The ALJ found that Ms. Brown had severe impairments, including endometriosis, schizoaffective disorder with affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and amnestic disorder, but concluded that none of Ms. Brown's impairments met or medically equaled any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1.

         The ALJ determined that Ms. Brown had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a), with limitations.[2]While the ALJ found that Ms. Brown couldn't perform her past relevant work, he determined that she could perform other jobs, including, but not limited to, circuit board screener, eyewear assembler, and document preparer. The ALJ concluded Ms. Brown wasn't disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and so wasn't entitled to disability benefits.

         When the Appeals Council denied Ms. Brown's request for review, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 107 (2000); Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010). This appeal followed.

         II. Standard of Review

         The issue before the court isn't whether Ms. Brown is disabled, but whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision that she isn't disabled. Scott v. Astrue, 647 F.3d 734, 739 (7th Cir. 2011); Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009). Substantial evidence means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010). In reviewing the ALJ's decision, the court can't reweigh the evidence, make independent findings of fact, decide credibility, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner, Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 513 (7th Cir. 2009); Powers v. Apfel, 207 F.3d 431, 434-435 (7th Cir. 2000), but, instead, must conduct “a critical review of the evidence, considering both the evidence that supports, as well as the evidence that detracts from, the Commissioner's decision.” Briscoe v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). While the ALJ isn't required “to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, he must provide a ‘logical bridge' between the evidence and the conclusions so that [the court] can assess the validity of the agency's ultimate findings and afford the claimant meaningful judicial review.” Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010). ALJs must “sufficiently articulate their assessment of the evidence to assure [the court] that they considered the important evidence and to enable [the court] to trace the path of their reasoning.” Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002) (internal quotations omitted).

         III. Discussion

         Ms. Brown argues that the ALJ made three errors that require remand: (1) the ALJ improperly ignored the opinions of two psychologists; (2) the ALJ's credibility determination was flawed, and (3) the ALJ didn't properly address a medical opinion that contradicted the ALJ's residual functional capacity determination. Ms. Brown asks the court to either reverse the Commissioner's decision and award benefits or remand the case for further proceedings. Ms. Brown's first argument requires remand. While the ALJ's credibility determination might not be patently wrong, on remand the ALJ should ensure that his findings are reasoned, supported, and based only on proper factors.

         A. The ALJ's Treatment of Dr. Apel's and Dr. Wax's Opinions

         Ms. Brown argues that the ALJ erred in his treatment of the medical opinions of two psychologists. First, Ms. Brown contends that the ALJ didn't properly address the opinion of Dr. Samantha Apel, an examining psychologist. Dr. Apel diagnosed Ms. Brown with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type and noted that she had suicidal thoughts, “significant auditory hallucinations and fear of being home alone, ” poor concentration and memory, and “missed a lot of work” at her one-day per week job cutting hair at a nursing home “due to depressive symptoms.” Based on her findings, Dr. Apel opined that Ms. Brown's “symptoms continue to be consistent with schizoaffective disorder … worsening over the last few years[, ] resulting in [an] inability to work full time or maintain healthy relationships.” The ALJ's written decision doesn't provide any indication that he considered Dr. Apel's opinion; he didn't assign it any weight or address any aspect of her medical report.

         The court of appeals has repeatedly called on ALJs to consider all relevant evidence, especially evidence “that would support strongly a claim of disability.” O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 621 (7th Cir. 2010). See also Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1123 (7th Cir. 2014) (recognizing that an ALJ needn't discuss every piece of evidence but “may not analyze only the evidence supporting her ultimate conclusion while ignoring the evidence that undermines it”); Myles v. Astrue, 582 F.3d 672, 678 (7th Cir. 2009) (“[a]n ALJ may not selectively consider medical reports . . . but must consider all relevant evidence”) (internal quotations omitted). Dr. Apel's report and her opinion are relevant to a disability determination and shouldn't have been ignored by the ALJ. The Commissioner doesn't dispute this, but argues that the ALJ wasn't required to address Dr. Apel's opinion because she opined on Ms. Brown's ability to work, which is a legal matter reserved to the Commissioner.

         The Commissioner is correct that determining whether a claimant is able to work is a legal matter reserved to the Commissioner by law. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1). See also Garcia v. Colvin, 741 F.3d 758, 760 (7th Cir. 2013) (determining “whether the applicant is sufficiently disabled to qualify for social security disability benefits is a question of law that can't be answered by a physician”). But reserving that determination to the Commissioner is “not the same thing as saying that such a statement is improper and therefore to be ignored.” Bjornson v. Astrue, 671 F.3d 640, 647 (7th Cir. 2012). See also Garcia v. Colvin, 741 F.3d 758, 760 ...

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