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Brady v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

March 6, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on a Complaint [DE 1], filed by Plaintiff Daniel Anthony Brady on December 19, 2016, and a Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Reversing the Decision of the Commissioner of Social Security [DE 13], filed on June 13, 2017. Plaintiff requests that the September 19, 2015 decision of the Administrative Law Judge denying his claim for supplemental security income be reversed and remanded for further proceedings. On August 24, 2017, the Commissioner filed a response, and Plaintiff filed a reply on October 13, 2017. For the following reasons, the Court grants Plaintiff's request for remand.


         Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income on June 27, 2013, after he turned eighteen years old, alleging disability since birth in 1995 based on trisomy 20 mosaicism, pulmonary stenosis, occult cleft palate, and severe scoliosis. The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. On September 2, 2015, Administrative Law Judge Laurie Wardell (“ALJ”) held a hearing. In attendance at the hearing were Plaintiff, Plaintiff's family, Plaintiff's attorney, and an impartial vocational expert. On September 19, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision denying benefits, making the following findings:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 27, 2013, the application date.
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: scoliosis, learning disability, and mild pulmonary valve stenosis.
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
4. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except the claimant can occasionally lift and carry 20 pound[s] and frequently 10 pounds; sit for 6 hours and stand for 6 hours; is able to occasionally be exposed to extreme cold, extreme heat, wetness, humidity, fumes, odors and pulmonary irritants; and is able to do simple routine repetitive tasks not at a production rate pace. The claimant is not able to do work that requires writing with a writing instrument. The claimant should have no exposure to hazards. The claimant is limited to occasional fingering and work in a work environment that is not any louder than a moderate work environment.
5. The claimant has no past relevant work.
6. The claimant was born [in 1995] and was 18 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date the application was filed.
7. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English.
8. Transferability of job skills is not an issue because the claimant does not have past relevant work.
9. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.
10. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 27, 2013, the date the application was filed.

(AR 13-22).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, leaving the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. Plaintiff filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the Agency's decision.

         The parties filed forms of consent to have this case assigned to a United States Magistrate Judge to conduct all further proceedings and to order the entry of a final judgment in this case. Therefore, this Court has jurisdiction to decide this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The Social Security Act authorizes judicial review of the final decision of the agency and indicates that the Commissioner's factual findings must be accepted as conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Thus, a court reviewing the findings of an ALJ will reverse only if the findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ has applied an erroneous legal standard. See Briscoe v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005) (quoting Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003)).

         A court reviews the entire administrative record but does not reconsider facts, re-weigh the evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See Boiles v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 421, 425 (7th Cir. 2005); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000); Butera v. Apfel, 173 F.3d 1049, 1055 (7th Cir. 1999). Thus, the question upon judicial review of an ALJ's finding that a claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is not whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled, but whether the ALJ “uses the correct legal standards and the decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Roddy v. Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2010); Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 734-35 (7th Cir. 2006); Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004)). “[I]f the Commissioner commits an error of law, ” the Court may reverse the decision “without regard to the volume of evidence in support of the factual findings.” White v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 369, 373 (7th Cir. 1999) (citing Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997)).

         At a minimum, an ALJ must articulate her analysis of the evidence in order to allow the reviewing court to trace the path of her reasoning and to be assured that the ALJ considered the important evidence. See Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002); Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 307 (7th Cir. 1995); Green v. Shalala, 51 F.3d 96, 101 (7th Cir. 1995). An ALJ must “‘build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [the] conclusion' so that [a reviewing court] may assess the validity of the agency's final decision and afford [a claimant] meaningful review.” Giles v. Astrue, 483 F.3d 483, 487 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Scott, 297 F.3d at 595)); see also O'Connor-Spinner, 627 F.3d at 618 (“An ALJ need not specifically address every piece of evidence, but must provide a ‘logical bridge' between the evidence and [her] conclusions.”); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 889 (7th Cir. 2001) (“[T]he ALJ's analysis must provide some glimpse into the reasoning behind [the] decision to deny benefits.”).


         To be eligible for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he suffers from a “disability” as defined by the Social Security Act and regulations. The Act defines “disability” as an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). To be found disabled, the claimant's impairment must not only prevent him from doing his previous work, but considering his age, education, and work experience, it must also prevent him from engaging in any other type of substantial gainful activity that exists in significant numbers in the economy. 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e)-(f).

         When a claimant alleges a disability, Social Security regulations provide a five-step inquiry to evaluate whether the claimant is entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). The steps are: (1) Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity? If yes, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no, the inquiry proceeds to step two; (2) Does the claimant have an impairment or combination of impairments that are severe? If no, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if yes, the inquiry proceeds to step three; (3) Do(es) the impairment(s) meet or equal a listed impairment in the appendix to the regulations? If yes, the claimant is automatically considered disabled; if no, then the inquiry proceeds to step four; (4) Can the claimant do the claimant's past relevant work? If yes, the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no, then the inquiry proceeds to step five; (5) Can the claimant perform other work given the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), age, education, and experience? If yes, then the claimant is not disabled, and the claim is denied; if no, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v); see also Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699-700 (7th Cir. 2004).

         At steps four and five, the ALJ must consider an assessment of the claimant's RFC. The RFC “is an administrative assessment of what work-related activities an individual can perform despite [his] limitations.” Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1178 (7th Cir. 2001). The RFC should be based on evidence in the record. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 676 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3)). The claimant bears the burden of proving steps one through four, whereas the burden at step five is on the ALJ. Zurawski, 245 F.3d at 885-86; see also Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).


         Plaintiff seeks reversal and an award of benefits or, in the alternative, remand for further proceedings, arguing that the ALJ failed to properly analyze the Listings at step three, that the RFC assessment was not supported by substantial evidence, and that the credibility determination of Plaintiff's and his parents' testimony was legally insufficient. The Court considers each argument in turn.

         A. Listing of Impairments

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff does not meet or equal a listing at step three of the sequential analysis. On June 26, 2013, Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. C. Kramer, authored a letter to the Social Security Administration Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. (AR 313). At the time of the letter, Plaintiff was already eighteen years old. In the letter, Dr. Kramer, who indicated he had been treating Plaintiff since August 2001, identified Plaintiff's diagnoses as velopharyngeal insufficiency, which required multiple surgeries; a submucus cleft palate; pulmonary artery stenosis; a learning disability; and a seizure disorder. Id. Dr. Kramer wrote that, in March 2002, Plaintiff was evaluated at the Genetic Clinic of Children's Memorial Hospital and found to have trisomy 20 mosaicism on a chromosomal analysis. Id. He explained that this diagnosis unified all of Plaintiff's problems under one diagnosis. Id. Dr. Kramer then opined: “The diagnosis of Trisomy 20 mosaicism with all of Daniel's concurrent problems would appear to medically meet listing 110.8B.” Id. The Court notes that there is no Listing 110.8B, but Dr. Kramer likely intended to identify Listing 110.08B for “catastrophic congenital disorders, ” discussed below. On August 25, 2015, Dr. Kramer authored a second letter giving the same background information and diagnoses but offering no opinion on whether Plaintiff meets or equals a listing. (AR 610).

         The Listing of Impairments for the evaluation of impairments of children under age 18 is found in Appendix 1, Part B. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, Part B. The introductory sentence to Part B provides: “Medical criteria for the evaluation of impairments of children under age 18 (where criteria in part A do not give appropriate consideration to the particular disease process in childhood).” Id. The listings in Part B are “never” used to evaluate individuals who are age eighteen or older. 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(b)(2)(I). Within Part B, Listing 110.00 addresses “Congenital Disorders That Affect Multiple Body Systems.” This section evaluates two impairments: “non-mosaic Down syndrome and catastrophic congenital disorders.” Id. at § 110.00A.

         First, Listing 110.06 addresses non-mosaic Down syndrome, which is defined under the Listing as a genetic disorder involving extra copies of chromosome 21 in all of the cells, identified as either “chromosome 21 trisomy” or “chromosome 21 translocation.” Id. at § 110.00B. There are no medical records showing that Plaintiff has chromosome 21 trisomy or chromosome 21 translocation. Rather, Plaintiff was diagnosed with trisomy 20 mosaicism. (AR 281).

         Second, Listing 110.08, the listing identified by Dr. Kramer, addresses ...

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