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Stanley v. Berryhill

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

January 12, 2018

ARIEL STANLEY, by her mother and court-appointed co-guardian Melinda Stanley, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Ariel E. Stanley (“Ariel”) requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying her Application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). For the following reasons, the Court REMANDS the decision of the Commissioner for further consideration.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         On July 25, 2012, Melinda Stanley (“Melinda”), filed an application for SSI, alleging a disability of Borderline Intellectual Functioning for her daughter Ariel, beginning April 18, 1994, Ariel's date of birth. (Filing No. 13-2 at 19.) The claim was initially denied on October 2, 2012, and again on reconsideration on November 7, 2012. (Filing No. 13-2 at 19.) After filing a written request for a hearing, Ariel and her mother appeared and testified at a hearing held on May 9, 2014, in Indianapolis, Indiana before Administrative Law Judge Mark C. Ziercher (the “ALJ”). (Filing No. 13-2 at 19.) The claim was denied on August 26, 2014, and on March 2, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Ariel's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. (Filing No. 13-2 at 19; Filing No. 13-2 at 2.) On May 6, 2016, Ariel filed this action for judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Filing No. 1.)

         B. Factual Background [2]

         In November 2008, at age 14, Ariel was referred from the Indiana Bureau of Developmental Disability Services, to psychologist Jessica Jones, Psy.D. (“Dr. Jones”). (Filing No. 13-7 at 7.) Dr. Jones noted that Ariel had been previously diagnosed with Borderline Intellectual Functioning, ADHD, Auditory Processing Disorder, Amblyopia[3], and Microcephaly. (Filing No. 13-7 at 13.) Using the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, Fifth Edition, Dr. Jones assessed Ariel with a verbal IQ score of 78, a nonverbal IQ score of 68, and a full scale IQ score of 72. (Filing No. 13-7 at 12.) This IQ score placed her intellectual functioning within the borderline range. (Filing No. 13-7 at 12.) Dr. Jones made a variety of recommendations, including that Ariel receive continued support and treatment through school programming, continue to take psychotropic medication for attention deficits, and receive screenings to determine if further formal speech, occupational therapy, and vision therapy services were warranted. (Filing No. 13-7 at 12-13.) Dr. Jones also stated that Ariel would benefit from services to help her maintain current functioning, learn new skills, and increase her independence. (Filing No. 13-7 at 13.) Dr. Jones also indicated that Ariel needed a structured environment, and indicated that she would benefit from the continued services of a legal guardian. (Filing No. 13-7 at 2.) She also suggested that Ariel continue to develop her social skills through community involvement, social events, and social skills therapy and training. (Filing No. 13-7 at 12.)

         In March 2009, Ariel completed another Multidisciplinary Educational Evaluation, where she was administered the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Abilities, Third Edition. (Filing No. 13-7 at 30-31.) That evaluation concluded that her overall intellectual ability was in the low range. (Filing No. 13-7 at 36.) She demonstrated “very low” performance in processing speed, short term memory, and working memory. (Filing No. 13-7 at 36.) Her adaptive behavior skills were below average. (Filing No. 13-7 at 36).

         As Ariel was about to enter high school, in March 2009, the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration found that Ariel met the definition of a person with a developmental disability. (Filing No. 13-7 at 3.) Ariel proceeded through high school with an Individualized Education Program which took into account a vision impairment, low adaptive behavior, and problems with short term memory. (Filing No. 13-8 at 32-41.) She completed high school with a series of accommodations. (Filing No. 13-8 at 11-41.) Her report cards reflected grades of A's. B's and C's, though with some D's and F's. Ariel was a member of the school band and from a young age has played the flute.

         In March 2012, when Ariel was 17 years old, Dr. David Strus, Ph.D. (“Dr. Strus”), conducted a mental evaluation of Ariel for the purposes of determining whether a guardianship, in which her parents would serve as co-guardians, was appropriate for Ariel after she reached the age of 18. (Filing No. 13-7 at 66-68.) Dr. Strus concluded that Ariel “has generally done better than most would have predicted, ” given her microcephaly. (Filing No. 13-7 at 66.) Dr. Strus noted that Ariel suffered from bullying and peer issues, and that while she did “reasonably well socially, ” she had also been the “victim of ostracism [at] about the level that would unfortunately be expected.” (Filing No. 13-7 at 67.) He found that she lacked insight into the abstract issues of life, and that Ariel would “profit enormously” from her parents having a guardianship over her. (Filing No. 13-7 at 68.) Dr. Strus assessed a Global Assessment Functioning (“GAF”) score of 50. (Filing No. 13-7 at 68.)

         On June 15, 2012, a judge in the Howard County Circuit Court, Indiana, declared Ariel an “incapacitated adult” and appointed her parents as co-guardians over both her person and estate. (Filing No. 13-5 at 3.)

         In May and August 2012, Ariel underwent further educational evaluations. (Filing No. 13-11 at 1-13.) The May 2012 evaluation concluded that Ariel's overall adaptive skills were below average. (Filing No. 13-11 at 4.) The August 2012 evaluation concluded that Ariel “demonstrated very weak pragmatic/critical social thinking skills that were commensurate with very weak language skills.” (Filing No. 13-11 at 11.) In September 2012, Ariel was referred to Dr. Michael O'Brien, Psy.D. (“Dr. O'Brien”) for a psychological evaluation. (Filing No. 13-8 at 70.) Dr. O'Brien assessed a full scale IQ score of 75, and diagnosed Ariel with a Disorder of Written Expression (per records) and Borderline Intellectual Functioning, and he assigned a GAF score of 63. (Filing No. 13-8 at 70.) Dr. O'Brien noted that Ariel's ability generally fell in the lower and borderline range. Id.

         On October 2, 2012, Dr. Stacia Hill, Ph.D. conducted a review of Ariel's records. She concluded that Ariel demonstrated mild restrictions in activities of daily living; moderate restrictions in social functioning; and moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace. (Filing No. 13-9 at 17.) On October 9, 2012, Ariel's treating physician Dr. William H. Mohr, M.D. (“Dr. Mohr”), completed a questionnaire regarding Ariel's impairments. (Filing No. 13-11 at 25-.) Dr. Mohr indicated diagnoses of mental retardation; microcephaly; attention deficit disorder; stress incontinence; amblyopia and esotropia; and multiple musculoskeletal problems. (Filing No. 13-11 at 25.) Dr. Mohr opined that Ariel was prevented from engaging in substantial gainful activities primarily because of her mental deficiency. (Filing No. 13-11 at 26.)

         In January 2013, General Motors (“GM”) Benefits and Services Center approved Ariel as a “totally and permanently disabled” child. (Filing No. 17 at 20). In February 2013, Ariel was approved for traditional Medicaid benefits for the Aged, Blind, and Disabled from October 2012 and continuing. Id. On April 5, 2013, Ariel was approved for Vocational Rehabilitation Services through the Indiana Family Social Services Administration (“FSSA”).


         Under the Act, a claimant may be entitled to DIB or SSI only after she establishes that she is disabled. Disability is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). In order to be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled despite her medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment that meets the durational requirement, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelve month duration requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         If the claimant's impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the impairments on the Listing of Impairments, then her residual functional capacity will be assessed and used for the fourth and fifth steps. Residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is the “maximum that a claimant can still do despite [her] mental and physical limitations.” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 675-76 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); SSR 96-8p). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At the fifth and final step, it must be determined whether the claimant can perform any other work in the relevant economy, given her RFC and considering her age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). The claimant is not disabled if she can perform any other work in the relevant economy.

         The combined effect of all the impairments of the claimant shall be considered throughout the disability determination process. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B). The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps; it then shifts to the Commissioner for the fifth step. Young v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992).

         Section 405(g) of the Act gives the court “power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In reviewing the ALJ's decision, this Court must uphold the ALJ's findings of fact if the findings are supported by substantial evidence and no error of law occurred. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). “Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. Further, this Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008). While the Court reviews the ALJ's decision deferentially, the Court cannot uphold an ALJ's decision if the decision “fails to mention highly pertinent evidence, . . . or that because of contradictions or missing premises fails to build a logical bridge between the facts of the case and the outcome.” Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted).

         The ALJ “need not evaluate in writing every piece of testimony and evidence submitted.” Carlson v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 180, 181 (7th Cir. 1993). However, the “ALJ's decision must be based upon consideration of all the relevant evidence.” Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994). The ALJ is required to articulate only a minimal, but legitimate, justification for her acceptance or rejection of specific evidence of disability. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004).

         III. THE ...

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