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Hamman v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 18, 2018



          Robert L. Miller, Jr. Judge

         Scinda M. Hamman seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 423 and 1382 et seq. The court has jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons that follow, the court vacates the Commissioner's decision and remands this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Background

         Scinda M. Hamman filed her applications for benefits in June 2014, alleging that her disability began in March 20, 2012. Ms. Hamman previously had applied for benefits in the spring of 2012; those earlier applications were denied in November 2012, and Ms. Hamman didn't appeal. The 2014 applications were denied after an administrative hearing in which Ms. Hamman and a vocational expert testified.

         At the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge found that Ms. Hamman had severe impairments - sub-average intellectual functioning, depressive disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - as well as non-severe impairments - papillary thyroid carcinoma (resulting in a right thyroid lobotomy), hyperthyroidism (treated by medication), degenerative disc disease, and cervical strain (treated by medication and physical therapy). The ALJ ultimately concluded that Ms. Hamman's impairments weren't severe enough, either alone or in combination, to meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. The ALJ considered listings 12.02 (neurocognitive disorders), 12.04 (affective disorders), and 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders) in her decision.

         The ALJ determined that Ms. Hamman was mildly restricted in her daily living. Ms. Hamman could neither cook nor clean, but could shop, drive, and tend to some personal care. The ALJ also found that Ms. Hamman was mildly restricted in her social functioning. Ms. Hamman had a small social circle consisting primarily of immediate family, interacted well with customers and had made at least one friend at work. Her impairments created moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, and pace. Ms. Hamman needed a high level of supervision at times and became confused. Ms. Hamman also struggled with persistence and concentration at work, including lack of motivation to work and occasional problems with counting correct change.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Hamman had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with a number of discrete limitations. The ALJ further found that Ms. Hamman was capable of performing past relevant work experience as a cashier, and also that she could perform other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy.

         The ALJ concluded that Ms. Hamman wasn't disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and so wasn't entitled to disability benefits. When the Appeals Council denied her request for review, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 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 Ms. Hamman is disabled, but whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision that she 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). In reviewing the ALJ's decision, 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

         Ms. Hamman argues that the ALJ made several errors requiring remand: 1) that the ALJ improperly weighed certain medical and psychological opinion evidence; 2) that the ALJ erred in evaluating Ms. Hamman's ability to complete daily activities with regards to her residual function capacity; and 3) that the ALJ erred in not evaluating Ms. Hamman's work record as unique to Ms. Hamman. Ms. Hamman asks the court to either reverse the Commissioner's decision and award benefits or remand the case for further proceedings.

         A. The ALJ's Weighing of the Medical and Psychological Opinions

         Ms. Hamman first argues that the ALJ didn't properly weigh the opinion of the Social Security Administration consultative examiner, Heath Fervida, Psy.D. Ms. Hamman further argues that that the ALJ didn't properly weigh the opinions of consultative examiners Marilyn Nathan, Ph.D., and Frank Choate, Psy.D.

         1. Social Security Administration ...

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