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Helterbrand v. Berryhill

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

December 21, 2017

VIRGINIA G. HELTERBRAND, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S BRIEF IN SUPPORT OF APPEAL

          TIM A. BAKER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         When conducting a hearing and issuing a decision, Administrative Law Judges have many things they must remember to properly discuss, develop, and analyze, all while being efficient under the weight of heavy caseloads.[1] Nonetheless, ALJs' decisions greatly impact claimants' lives, and perfunctory analysis will not do. Unfortunately, in this instance the ALJ erred in her step three discussion of Listing 12.04(C), and the Court grants Plaintiff Virginia Helterbrand's request for remand. [Filing No. 19.]

         Plaintiff Virginia Helterbrand sought Social Security Income benefits due to her mood disorder and other physical and mental impairments. The Social Security Administration found she was not disabled, and Helterbrand appeals. Helterbrand argues the ALJ's step three analysis was perfunctory and failed to properly address her treating psychiatrist's opinion that she met the Listing 12.04(C)(2) criteria. The Court finds that the ALJ's discussion was insufficient and grants Helterbrand's brief in support of appeal. [Filing No. 19.] Helterbrand raises four other issues that the Court need not analyze in light of this remand order, but the ALJ may want to reevaluate some of the evidence in light of Helterbrand's arguments and the recent changes to Social Security Rulings regarding credibility and weighing physician testimony.

         II. Background

         Helterbrand filed her application for SSI on April 22, 2014, alleging disability beginning April 1, 2014. The claim was denied initially and upon review, so Helterbrand requested a hearing. Helterbrand attended the hearing and was represented by an attorney. The ALJ found Helterbrand was not disabled because she could perform limited unskilled light work such as housekeeping or preparing food.

         The ALJ found at step one that Helterbrand had not engaged in substantial gainful employment for the relevant period. At step two, the ALJ found Helterbrand had severe impairments of mood disorder, personality disorder, and morbid obesity, and non-severe impairments of depression, anxiety, diabetes, migraine headaches, carpal tunnel, and gastroesophageal reflux disease.

         The ALJ found at step three that these impairments, individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal any of the listings under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ looked to several listings, but Helterbrand only challenges the ALJ's analysis of Listing 12.04(C)(2), which relates to mood disorders. At step four, the ALJ determined that Helterbrand had the residual functional capacity to perform light work with several additional limitations. The ALJ also found Helterbrand's claims were not entirely credible. Based on her RFC, age, education, work experience, and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined at step five that there were significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that Helterbrand could perform. Thus, the ALJ found Helterbrand was not disabled.

         III. Discussion

         Helterbrand argues that the ALJ's decision must be remanded because the ALJ erred at step three in her discussion of whether her condition met or medically equaled Listing 12.04(C)(2).[2] Helterbrand's argument is two-fold. First, she argues the ALJ's analysis was impermissibly perfunctory. Second, she argues the ALJ failed to adequately address Dr. Betsy Rosiek's opinion. The Commissioner responds that, read as a whole, the decision adequately supports the ALJ's determination, and that Dr. Rosiek's opinion was properly rejected.

         Claimants are presumptively eligible for benefits if their impairment meets or equals one or more of the impairment listings. Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Claimants may satisfy the listing requirements by meeting the listed criteria or by showing that their symptoms medically equal the severity of the listing. Minnick, 775 F.3d at 935; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526. ALJs “must discuss the listing by name and offer more than a perfunctory analysis of the listing.” Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004). In Barnett, the court held that a two-sentence analysis of a listing was perfunctory and warranted remand. Id. at 670.

         The listing criterion at issue here reads: “A residual disease process that has resulted in such marginal adjustment that even a minimal increase in mental demands or change in the environment would be predicted to cause the individual to decompensate . . . .” 20 C.F.R. § Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1.[3]

         The ALJ's entire analysis was a single sentence: “The claimant does not have a residual disease process that has resulted in such marginal adjustment that even a minimal increase in mental demands or change in the environment would be predicted to cause the claimant to decompensate.” [Filing No. 15-2, at ECF p. 25; R. at 24.] It appears that ALJ merely copied the exact language from the listing and tacked “the claimant does not have . . .” to the beginning.

         To her credit, the Commissioner does not argue that this analysis is not perfunctory. Instead, the Commissioner argues that the ALJ discussed relevant facts in other areas of the decision. In a footnote, the Commissioner cites Molnar v. Astrue, 395 F. App'x 282, 287 ...


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