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Leslie B. v. Berryhill

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

September 12, 2018

LESLIE B., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



          Plaintiff Leslie B.[1] requests judicial review of the denial by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) of her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). For the reasons set forth below, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the Commissioner's decision should be REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         I. Procedural Background

         On January 30, 2013, the Plaintiff applied for Supplemental Security Income benefits under Title II and XVI of the Social Security Act, originally alleging an onset date of June 1, 2006, but later amending it to May 14, 2009. Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. The Plaintiff then filed a written request for a hearing on June 7, 2013, which was granted.

         On July 10, 2014, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) B. Lloyd Blair conducted a hearing. The Plaintiff appeared and testified at this hearing, and a vocational expert (“VE”) submitted answers to vocational interrogatories. Thereafter, on October 28, 2014, the ALJ held a supplemental hearing to cross examine the VE. On December 5, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff benefits. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 13, 2015.

         Plaintiff then sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision. After seeking judicial review, Plaintiff and the Commissioner submitted a joint motion to remand. The District Court granted the parties' motion to remand and ordered the ALJ to further evaluate Plaintiff's alleged symptoms, give further consideration to Plaintiff's maximum residual functional capacity, conduct further proceedings to determine whether a drug addiction is a contributing factor material to the finding of disability, and, if warranted, obtain evidence from a vocational expert.

         On September 13, 2016, ALJ B. Lloyd Blair conducted another hearing where the Plaintiff and a new VE testified. On December 7, 2016, the ALJ issued another unfavorable decision, which is the agency's final decision for the purposes of judicial review. 20 C.F.R. § 404.984(a), (d). Plaintiff now seeks review of the Commissioner's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         II. Standard of Review

          To prove disability, a claimant must show she is 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To meet this definition, Plaintiff's impairments must be of such severity that she is not able to perform the work she previously engaged in and, if based on her age, education, and work experience, she cannot engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) has implemented these statutory standards by, in part, prescribing a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The ALJ must consider whether:

(1) the claimant is presently [un]employed; (2) the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) the claimant's impairment meets or equals any impairment listed in the regulations as being so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity; (4) the claimant's residual functional capacity leaves her unable to perform her past relevant work; and (5) the claimant is unable to perform any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy.

Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351-52 (7th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). An affirmative answer to each step leads either to the next step or, at steps three and five, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Briscoe, 425 F.3d at 352. A negative answer at any point, other than step three, terminates the inquiry and leads to a determination that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant bears the burden of proof through step four. Briscoe, 425 F.3d at 352. If the first four steps are met, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Id. The Commissioner must then establish that the claimant-in light of her age, education, job experience and residual functional capacity to work-is capable of performing other work and that such work exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

         The Court reviews the Commissioner's denial of benefits to determine whether it was supported by substantial evidence or is the result of an error of law. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). Evidence is substantial when it is sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that the evidence supports the decision. Rice v. Barnhart, 384 F.3d 363, 369 (7th Cir. 2004). The standard demands more than a scintilla of evidentiary support, but does not demand a preponderance of the evidence. Wood v. Thompson, 246 F.3d 1026, 1029 (7th Cir. 2001). Thus, the issue before the Court is not whether Plaintiff is disabled, but rather, whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence. Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 306 (7th Cir. 1995).

         In this substantial-evidence determination, the Court must consider the entire administrative record but not “reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute our own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir.2000). Nevertheless, the Court must conduct a critical review of the evidence before affirming the Commissioner's decision, and the decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues, Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003); see also, Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).

         When an ALJ denies benefits, he must build an “accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion, ” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 872, articulating a minimal, but legitimate, justification for his decision to accept or reject specific evidence of a disability. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004).

         The ALJ need not address every piece of evidence in his decision, but he cannot ignore a line of evidence that undermines the conclusions he made, and he must trace the path of his reasoning and connect the evidence to his findings and conclusions. Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 592 (7th Cir. 2012); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d at 872.

         III. Discussion

         A. Factual Background

         The Plaintiff was born on October 6, 1987 and was 28 years old at the time of her second hearing in September 2016. [Dkt. 11-22 at 34 (R. 1156).] She completed high school through the tenth grade and never received a GED (General Equivalency Diploma). Id. The Plaintiff does not have a driver's license, smokes a pack and a half to two packs of cigarettes a day, and has a history of substance abuse. [Dkt. 11-22 at 34, 39-40 (R. 1156, 1161-62); Dkt. 11-2 at 71-74 (R. 70-73).] She previously worked as a car detailer, fast food worker, greeter, and house cleaner. [Dkt. 11-22 at 35-36 (R. 1157-58).] The Plaintiff alleges that her mental and physical impairments prevent her from working full time. Id.

         B. Medical History

         On June 20, 2006, Adult & Child Mental Health Center referred the Plaintiff to Richmond State Hospital because “she posed a risk of violence against herself.” [Dkt. 11-9 at 2 (R. 352).] Upon admission, Plaintiff was irritable and complained that she suffered from bi-polar disease, substance abuse problems, and anger issues. [Id.] Reviewing her medical history, Dr. Adrian Villarin discovered that the Plaintiff was, at age nine, diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”) and at age thirteen, she started using marijuana and eventually crack cocaine. [Id.] Even though Dr. Villarin noted that the Plaintiff had poor compliance with treatment, on September 22, 2006, Plaintiff was discharged to the care of her mother in an “improved” mental state. [Id.] Dr. Villarin diagnosed the Plaintiff with mixed bipolar disorder, polysubstance dependence, and ADHD. [Id.]

         In March 2009, the Plaintiff was again hospitalized for an “[u]nspecified episodic mood disorder.” [Dkt. 11-11 at 3 (R. 546).] She was admitted to Community North Hospital on immediate detention after being arrested. [Dkt. 11-11 at 9 (R. 553).] The Plaintiff was diagnosed by Dr. Thomas E. Kreider with severe benzodiazepine dependence, borderline personality disorder, alcohol abuse, recurrent severe major depression without psychosis, and a nicotine dependence. Dr. Kreider also noted the Plaintiff's history of cocaine dependence. [Dkt. 11-11 at 9 (R. 553).] The Plaintiff was discharged after twelve days in the hospital with the medical staff noting that she had made “some improvement.” [Dkt. 11-11 at 9-11 (R. 553-55).]

         In August 2011, Plaintiff sought treatment at Lincoln Behavioral Services in Redford, Michigan. [Dkt. 11-9 at 83-86 (R. 433-36).] There, she complained of angry and violent manic episodes, substance abuse, anxiety, and a history of panic attacks and suicidal ideations. [Id.] She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, type I, early partial remission polysubstance abuse and a Global Assessment Functioning (“GAF”) score of 47.[2] [Id.] It appears the Plaintiff discontinued services in December 2012.

         On March 29, 2013, Plaintiff visited Dr. Terrence A. Mills, a state consultative psychological examiner, for a psychological exam. [Dkt. 11-10 at 91 (R. 536).] Plaintiff reported that she had a history of bipolar disorder, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, anger issues, and panic disorder. [Id.] She indicated that she had been prescribed several medications for her ADHD in the past, but none of them had worked. [Id.] She also stated that she could not concentrate without her medication and lost her previous jobs because of her difficulty concentrating. [Dkt. 11-10 at 92 (R. 537).] At the time of this examination, she was not taking any medication because she was pregnant. [Dkt. 11-10 at 91 (R. 536).]

         Dr. Mills opined that Plaintiff suffered from mood swings, sleep deprivation, anger issues, ADHD, panic attacks and a poor ability to concentrate. [Dkt. 11-10 at 93 (R. 538).] He further opined that it did not appear that the Plaintiff could do work related activities. [Id.] Ultimately, Dr. Mills diagnosed her with mixed bipolar disorder, ...

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