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Richie v. Berryhill

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

July 23, 2018

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


         Robby Ritchie[1] seeks judicial review of a final decision denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423. The court has jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The court heard argument on July 18 and now vacates the Commissioner's decision and remands this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Background

         Mr. Ritchie's application for disability insurance benefits was denied initially, on reconsideration, and after an administrative hearing at which he and a vocational expert testified. Based on the record before her, the ALJ found that Mr. Ritchie had severe impairments-diabetes mellitus with neuropathy in the bilateral hands and feet and obesity-and non-severe impairments-back and neck impairments, hepatitis C, and hypertension-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. Ritchie had the residual functional capacity to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with limitations, [2] and was able to perform his past relevant work as an automobile painter. 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. Ritchie'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. Ritchie 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 at 1160. 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 ex rel. Taylor 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 at 1160. 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. Ritchie presents five issues for review: (1) whether substantial evidence supported the ALJ's step two determination that Mr. Ritchie's neck and lumbar impairments weren't severe; (2) whether the ALJ properly determined that Mr. Ritchie's impairments didn't meet or medically equal a listing; (3) whether the ALJ erred in crafting her residual functional capacity determination; (4) whether the ALJ's credibility determination is patently wrong; and (5) whether the Appeals Council erred when considering newly submitted evidence. Mr. Ritchie asks the court to either reverse the Commissioner's decision and award benefits or remand the case for further proceedings.

         Mr. Ritchie first argues that the ALJ erred at step two of the sequential evaluation of disability when she determined that Mr. Ritchie's neck and lumbar impairments were “non-severe.” Mr. Ritchie argues that the ALJ didn't address evidence in the record that could have supported a finding that those impairments were severe.

         At step two, an ALJ considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairment; the burden was on Mr. Ritchie to show that he had a “severe impairment.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The step two inquiry is “a de minimis screening for groundless claims” and “[a]n impairment is not severe only if it is a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on the ability to do basic work activities.” Meuser v. Colvin, 838 F.3d 905, 910 (7th Cir. 2016) (internal quotations omitted).

         Despite evidence in the record that Mr. Ritchie's neck and “major back surgery” hadn't solved his spinal issues and that he suffered ongoing pain, the ALJ, citing evidence from a consultative examiner and a treating physician, found that Mr. Ritchie's neck and lumbar impairments-also described as spinal disorders in the record-were non-severe. The ALJ didn't acknowledge or discuss the opinions of two state agency physicians-Drs. M. Brill and Fernando Montoya-that Mr. Ritchie's spinal disorder was severe.[3] The ALJ also didn't address a report from Dr. Harley Yoder, one of Mr. Ritchie's treating physicians, describing the severity of his spinal disorder. Dr. Yoder opined that “a fragment of his vertebra has almost severed his sciatic nerve . . . [causing] residual nerve damage . . . [and] chronic pain in his neck and his lower back.” [Doc. No. 15 at 277]. Dr. Yoder opined that there are no surgical options to address Mr. Ritchie's aliments, noted that he was in significant pain, and directed him not to work for at least a month.

         The opinions of Drs. Brill, Montoya, and Yoder regarding Mr. Ritchie's spinal disorder-none addressed by the ALJ-are sufficient to meet step two's de minimis screening and demonstrate that this impairment was more than a slight abnormality with no more than a minimal effect on his ability to do basic work activities.

         The Commissioner notes that step two is merely a threshold requirement and argues that the court should find that the ALJ's error was harmless because she found at least one severe impairment, proceeded to the remaining steps of the evaluation process, and considered his spinal disorder when fashioning a residual functional capacity determination. Cf. Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 926-927 (7th Cir. 2010). The ALJ met the first two requirements-she found that Mr. Ritchie's diabetes mellitus with neuropathy and obesity were severe impairments and proceeded in the sequential disability process.

         To support her argument that the ALJ properly considered Mr. Ritchie's spinal disorder at step four, the Commissioner points to portions of the ALJ's opinion including boilerplate language saying she considered all of Mr. Ritchie's impairments when determining his residual functional capacity. But at step four in her opinion, she expressly stated that Mr. Ritchie's “residual functional capacity is based upon the evidence of the claimant's diabetes mellitus and obesity, ” [Doc. No. 15 at 21]. And even if the court agreed that the ALJ's error at step two was harmless, remand still would be required because the ALJ didn't consider the opinions of Drs. Brill, Montoya, and Yoder regarding Mr. Ritchie's spinal disorder at any point in her opinion, despite the requirement that she consider all relevant evidence, especially medical reports of treating physicians. See Myles v. Astrue, ...

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