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Rhoades v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 18, 2017



          Michael G. Gotsch, Sr. United States Magistrate Judge

         On December 29, 2016, Plaintiff Jennifer N. Rhoades (“Rhoades”) filed her complaint in this Court seeking reversal or remand of the Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner's”) final decision denying her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). On April 28, 2017, Rhoades filed her Opening Brief in Support of a Social Security Appeal. On August 2, 2017, the Commissioner filed a response requesting that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision. Rhoades filed a reply brief on August 16, 2017. This Court may enter a ruling in this matter based on the parties' consent. 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons discussed below, the Court remands this matter for further administrative proceedings.

         I. Relevant background

         On August 20, 2013, Rhoades, age 26, filed an application for Title XVI SSI with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) alleging disability beginning April 1, 2008, due to depression and anxiety, panic disorder, possible bipolar disorder, agoraphobia, and acid reflux. After the SSA denied her application initially and upon reconsideration, Rhoades requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which occurred on March 6, 2014.

         Rhoades completed fifth grade after which she was homeschooled. Through homeschooling, Rhoades may have completed eighth grade and some high school level work. She never earned a GED, but gained work experience as a fast food worker, an assistant chef, and a clerk.

         At the ALJ hearing, Rhoades testified that she lives with her parents and two children. She reported that she suffers from constant anxiety, weekly panic attacks, hallucinations, forgetfulness, and incidents of unexplained anger. Rhoades claims that these issues manifest in stomach pain, crying fits, tightened chest, hyperventilation, and sleeping problems. Rhoades explained that her symptoms prevent her from leaving home most of the time but that she overcomes her fears and anxiety to drive herself to the grocery store and doctor appointments about two or three times a week. She also testified that she mostly cares for her children but with the help of her mother who makes dinner for the children and helps them with their homework when Rhoades cannot do it herself. In addition, Rhoades indicated that her mother often must remind her to tend to laundry.

         Rhoades provided the ALJ with medical records of her medical treatment from December 2011 through June 2015. The record included documentation of regular visits to the Oaklawn Psychiatric Center, including primary care by Kathryn Plummer, N.P. who referred Rhoades for psychiatric treatment by LaRissa M. Chism, M.D., and several sessions with social workers. Rhoades also provided the ALJ with two Mental Capacity Assessments from Dr. Chism, one dated July 3, 2014, the other dated March 11, 2015. In her 2015 opinion, Dr. Chism indicated that Rhoades suffered from greater functional limitations than those reflected in the 2014 opinion and thus concluded that Rhoades is disabled and unable to work. State Agency consultants, however, opined in 2013 that none of Rhoades's impairments or any combination of impairments were severe.

         Upon review of the medical evidence and testimony from Rhoades and a vocational expert at the hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision on September 15, 2015. The ALJ's decision included the following findings based on the five-step disability evaluation prescribed in the SSA's regulations.[1] At Step One, the ALJ found that Rhoades had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 20, 2013, her application date. At Step Two, the ALJ found that Rhoades had the following severe impairments: generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, severe major depressive disorder, and headaches. At Step Three, the ALJ found that Rhoades's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment. Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ determined that Rhoades has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations.” [DE 8 at 27]. Specifically, the ALJ found that Rhoades

can perform simple, routine and repetitive tasks that can be learned with a short demonstration or within 30 days; can maintain the concentration required to perform simple tasks; and can remember simple work like procedures. She is limited to low stress work, defined as requiring only occasional decision-making and only occasional changes in the work setting. She can tolerate predictable changes in the work environment and meet production requirements in an environment that allows her to sustain a flexible and goal oriented pace. She is limited from fast-paced work, such as assembly line production work with rigid or strict productivity requirements. The claimant can make simple work-related decisions. She is limited to superficial interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the public with superficial interaction defines as occasional and casual contact not involving prolonged conversation. The contact with supervisors still involves necessary instruction, but prolonged conversation is not necessary for task completion. She cannot work within close proximity to very loud noises or bright and flashing lights, such as fire alarms, fire alarm lights, or strobe lights on more than occasional basis.

[DE 8 at 27].

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that Rhoades had no past relevant work. At Step Five, the ALJ considered Rhoades's age, education, work experience, and RFC and determined that as of the date of his decision, Rhoades was able to perform the jobs of Laundry Worker I, Industrial Cleaner, and Dishwasher, which exist in significant numbers in the national economy.

         Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded that Rhoades was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and therefore did not qualify for SSI benefits. The Appeals Council denied Rhoades's request for review of the ALJ's decision on November 3, 2016. As a result, the ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final decision eligible for judicial review by this Court. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Fast v. Barnhart, 397 F.3d 468, 470 (7th Cir. 2005).

         II. Analysis

         A court reviewing the decision of an ALJ will only reverse or remand if the ALJ's findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ has applied an erroneous legal standard. Briscoe v. Barnhart,425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence must be more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue,478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Simply stated, it 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). Thus, the task for the court on judicial review is not to resolve the question of whether the claimant is, in ...

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