United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
OPINION AND ORDER
P. SIMON, JUDGE
Donald Dixon appeals the denial of his application for social
security disability benefits. Stephens was 49 years old on
the date he alleges he became disabled. An administrative law
judge found that Dixon retains the residual functional
capacity to perform light work with certain limitations. [AR
at 16-17.] The ALJ found that Dixon has severe
impairments of affective disorder, degenerative joint disease
of the left shoulder, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar
spine, and uncontrolled hypertension. [AR at 14.] Dixon
previously worked as a golf course groundskeeper and a well
drill operator helper. [AR at 21.]
asks me to reverse the ALJ's decision and remand for
further proceedings. My review of the ALJ's decision is
deferential. I must affirm it if it is supported by
substantial evidence, meaning “‘such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.'” McKinzey v.
Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 889 (7thCir. 2011)
(citation omitted). I can't reweigh the evidence or
substitute my judgment for that of the ALJ. Minnick v.
Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015).
But these standards do not mean that I “will simply
rubber-stamp the Commissioner's decision without a
critical review of the evidence.” Clifford v.
Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000).
considering the evidence, “an ALJ is not required to
provide a complete and written evaluation of every piece of
testimony and evidence, but ‘must build a logical
bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.'”
Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th
Cir. 2015), quoting Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d
737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005). This means that an
ALJ's decision must offer an explanation of the rationale
from the evidence to his or her conclusions “sufficient
to allow us, as a reviewing court, to assess the validity of
the agency's ultimate findings and afford [the claimant]
meaningful judicial review.” Moore v. Colvin,
743 F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th Cir. 2014).
determination of disability results from the conclusion that
one or more impairments “meet(s), medically equal(s),
or functionally equal(s)” the listed impairments in
social security regulations at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1. Impairments meeting the listing criteria
conclusively establish disability. See 20 C.F.R.
§416.920(a)(4)(iii). Here the ALJ concluded that Dixon
“does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments.” [AR at 14.] Dixon's
first argument is that the ALJ's conclusion in this
regard is not supported by substantial evidence.
considered one listing in the area of mental health, namely
Listing 12.04 for Affective Disorders and found that
Dixon's impairments did not meet or equal its criteria.
[AR at 14-16.] Dixon argues that the ALJ erred by failing to
consider Listing 12.08 for Personality Disorders, when the
medical record contains the medical opinion of treating
specialists finding that Dixon met the requirements of the
County Counseling Center, Dixon was a patient of Gary Allan,
a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, who is a
Doctor of Nursing Practice. Allan worked under the
supervision of Dr. Kathleen Miller, a psychiatrist. Allan
completed a Psychiatric Review Technique form and a Mental
Residual Functional Capacity Assessment which Dr. Miller also
signed. [AR at 513-525, 527-529.] That form contains the
opinion that Dixon met the requirements of Listing 12.08 for
Personality Disorders. [AR at 520, 523.] Dixon argues that
the ALJ's failure to make any mention of, let alone
analyze, Listing 12.08 is an error that requires
reversal. I agree.
considering whether a claimant's condition meets or
equals a listed impairment, an ALJ must discuss the listing
by name and offer more than perfunctory analysis of the
listing.” Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935
(7th Cir. 2015), quoting Barnett v.
Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004).
Without any reference to Listing 12.08, the ALJ rejected the
opinions he attributed only to Allan, giving them “very
little weight.” [AR at 16.] Similarly, before me, the
Commissioner ignores the argument that the ALJ failed to
consider Listing 12.08. Instead, the Commissioner merely
defends the little weight given to the opinions attributed to
Allan. [DE 22 at 4-5.]
then, and the Commissioner now, point out that Allan, a nurse
practitioner, is not an “acceptable medical
source” under applicable regulations, and was not a
consultant designated by the Commissioner. [AR at 16; DE 22
at 5.] But Dr. Miller is an acceptable medical
source, and the ALJ did not explain or support his failure to
attribute the opinions to her. The ALJ construed Dr.
Miller's signature as a “countersigning”
rather than “co-signing.” To countersign a
document is “[t]o write one's own name next to
someone else's to verify the other signer's
identity.” Black's Law Dictionary, 7th
ed., p. 354. In this circumstance, to construe Dr.
Miller's signature as a “countersignature” is
not sensible. Why would she be verifying Allan's
signature? On the contrary, I see no reason to construe Dr.
Miller's signature as anything other than reflecting her
adoption of Allan's analysis and conclusions concerning
Dixon's mental health.
in that way, the ALJ had opinion evidence of a treating
physician which he ignored in making critical findings
concerning the disability listings. This supports a remand
for further consideration. In any event, even without the
signature of Dr. Miller, the governing regulations and the
caselaw in this circuit recognize that the opinions of
treating nurse practitioners are “important and should
be evaluated on key issues such as impairment severity and
functional effects.” Gerstner v. Berryhill,
879 F.3d 257, 262 (7th Cir. 2018) quoting SSR
06-03P, 2006 WL 2329939 (Aug. 9, 2006). I next consider
whether the ALJ gave good reasons for discounting the
opinions expressed by Allan and adopted by Dr. Miller.
most petty of reasons given by the ALJ for assigning little
weight to Allan's and Miller's opinions is that a
portion of the form (relating to the ‘paragraph C'
criteria of the Listings) was completed when it was
unnecessary. [AR at 16.] But there is no inconsistency in the
additional information and opinions recorded in that portion
of the form, and no reasonable basis for discounting the
views expressed because more than the requisite
information was given.
substantively, the ALJ says that Allan's opinion is
“inconsistent with the claimant's reported
functioning by himself and others, and it is inconsistent
with his psychiatric treatment and response to such
treatment.” [AR at 16.] The ALJ's only examples are
observations in the Four County treatment notes that on May
12, 2015 Dixon reported “doing pretty good with
medicine” and that he went mushroom hunting [AR at 20,
657], and that on December 12, 2014 Dixon reported
“better energy and more ambition/energy to accomplish
tasks when taking medication” [AR at 20, 580]. But in
the later of these two visits, NP Allan also noted a number
of symptoms and conditions entirely supportive of his
assessment of Dixon's overall mental state, including
that he was dysthymic with restricted affect, had
negativistic thought process, occasional fleeting suicidal
ideations, marginal attention and concentration, marginal
insight and judgment, continued to avoid social contacts, and
his self-esteem remained low. [AR at 657.] And on the earlier
occasion, Allan's notes also included that Dixon often
remained negativistic in his thinking, continued to avoid
social interactions, had occasional fleeting suicidal