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Moore v. Berryhill

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

March 26, 2018

ISAIAH MOORE, Plaintiff
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Robert L. Miller, Jr. Judge

         Isaiah Moore seeks judicial review of a final decision denying his application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 423 and 1383 et seq. The court has jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the following reasons, the court vacates the Commissioner's decision and remands this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Background

         Mr. Moore's application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income was denied initially, on reconsideration, and after an administrative hearing at which he, Bernard Stevens, M.D., and a vocational expert testified. Based on the record before him, the ALJ found that Mr. Moore had severe impairments-morbid obesity, gout, and low back pain with radiculopathy-but concluded that none of his impairments met or medically equaled any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1.

         The ALJ decided that Mr. Moore had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.967(a), with limitations, [1] including his past relevant work as a telephone solicitor, and other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy, such as document preparer, order clerk, and charge account clerk. The ALJ concluded that he wasn't disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and wasn't entitled to benefits.

         When the Appeals Council denied Mr. Moore's request for review, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. 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 Mr. Moore is disabled, but whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision that he wasn'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). 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

         Mr. Moore presents four issues for review: (1) whether substantial evidence supported the ALJ's determination that he didn't have a medically determinable mental impairment; (2) whether the ALJ's credibility determination complied with relevant legal standards; (3) whether the ALJ properly weighed the opinion evidence; and (4) whether the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding accounted for all of Mr. Moore's impairments. Mr. Moore asks the court to either reverse the Commissioner's decision and award benefits or remand the case for further proceedings.

         Mr. Moore first argues that the ALJ erred at step two of the sequential evaluation of disability when he determined that Mr. Moore didn't have a medically determinable mental impairment even though the mental health specialists that either examined Mr. Moore or reviewed his records found mental impairments. At step two, Mr. Moore had to show that he had “a medically determinable physical or mental impairment.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521, 416.921. The threshold showing of a severe or non-severe impairment can't be established only by a claimant's “statement of symptoms, a diagnosis, or a medical opinion to establish the existence of an impairment, ” but must be shown “by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” Id.

         Consultative psychologist Dr. Roger Parks conducted a mental status examination at which Mr. Moore exhibited concentration problems, difficulty with serial sevens, and was assessed a GAF score of 50, which suggests serious symptoms or a “serious impairment in social, occupational, or school functioning.” Am. Psychiatric Ass'n, Diagnostic & Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders 34 (4th ed. 2000). Based on these findings, Dr. Parks diagnosed Mr. Moore with major depressive disorder.[2] The state agency consultants, Dr. Stacia Hill, Ph.D. and J. Sands, M.D., also found that Mr. Moore had a mental impairment: non-severe affective disorder.

         Dr. Parks's report supports a finding of a mental impairment; he is a specialist, diagnosed Mr. Moore with major depressive disorder based on a mental status examination, and the ALJ didn't find that Dr. Parks's mental status examination lacked medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. Nonetheless, the ALJ found that “the records don't support a finding of a mental impairment.” [Doc. No. 15-2 at 24]. This conclusory finding doesn't provide this court with a logical bridge between his conclusion and the evidence in the record that would allow the court to properly review his finding. See Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010).

         The ALJ also pointed to brief mental health assessments made by physicians during treatment appointments, for example, a remark that Mr. Moore had appropriate mood and affect and was cooperative during a follow-up appointment for gout treatment to support his finding of no mental impairment.[3]But if the ALJ sought to weigh these physicians' opinions over those of Dr. Parks, he could only do so after properly weighing Dr. Parks's opinion by considering the required regulatory factors. Se ...


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