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Rivera v. Berryhill

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

July 30, 2018

PAVLO MIRELES RIVERA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO JUDGE

         Pavlo Rivera suffers from a number of mental illnesses that cause him to experience paranoia, severe mood swings, and an explosive personality disorder. He applied for supplemental security income benefits, but an administrative law judge denied his claim, finding that he was able to work notwithstanding his severe impairments. Mr. Rivera seeks review of that decision. For the following reasons, the Court reverses the decision and remands this matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Mr. Rivera suffers from mental illnesses including bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, explosive personality disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He experiences severe impulse control problems, with paranoia, mood swings, and thought distortions. He also has a history of substance and alcohol abuse that exacerbate those conditions. His treating psychiatrist opined that Mr. Rivera should not work because it would be unsafe for him to be with other people in a work environment, noting that Mr. Rivera “has severe mood swings, has severe thought distortion and gets paranoid and he feels everyone is attacking him and therefore he ‘hits back first.'” (R. 344).

         Mr. Rivera applied for supplemental security income benefits, arguing that these conditions rendered him disabled. An ALJ found that Mr. Rivera did have a number of severe impairments, but that he did not meet or equal a listed impairment and that he had the residual functional capacity to perform jobs such as a kitchen helper or house cleaner. The ALJ thus found that Mr. Rivera did not qualify as disabled. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Rivera's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Mr. Rivera therefore filed this action seeking review of that decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Because the Appeals Council denied review, the Court evaluates the ALJ's decision as the final word of the Commissioner of Social Security. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). This Court will affirm the Commissioner's findings of fact and denial of disability benefits if they are supported by substantial evidence. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). This evidence must be “more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Thus, even if “reasonable minds could differ” about the disability status of the claimant, the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision as long as it is adequately supported. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         It is the duty of the ALJ to weigh the evidence, resolve material conflicts, make independent findings of fact, and dispose of the case accordingly. Perales, 402 U.S. at 399-400. In this substantial-evidence determination, the Court considers the entire administrative record but does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute the Court's own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Nevertheless, the Court conducts a “critical review of the evidence” before affirming the Commissioner's decision. Id. An ALJ must evaluate both the evidence favoring the claimant as well as the evidence favoring the claim's rejection and may not ignore an entire line of evidence that is contrary to his or her findings. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001). Consequently, an ALJ's decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues. Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539. While the ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, the ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Disability benefits are available only to those individuals who can establish disability under the terms of the Social Security Act. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998). Specifically, the claimant must be unable “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). The Social Security regulations create a five-step sequential evaluation process to be used in determining whether the claimant has established a disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). The steps are to be used in the following order:

1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity;
2. Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment;
3. Whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one listed in ...

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