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Lenox v. Berryhill

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

December 4, 2018

JJKITA LENOX, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT.

         Plaintiff Jjkita Lenox applied for social security disability benefits, claiming that she was disabled because of her lupus, depression, anxiety, and intellectual disability. An administrative law judge found that despite her disabilities, Ms. Lenox retained the ability to work, so she was not disabled. Ms. Lenox appeals that decision, focusing solely on the step-three finding that she did not meet the listing for an intellectual disability. For the reasons explained below, the Court finds that the decision was supported by substantial evidence, so the Court affirms.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Ms. Lenox filed applications for social security disability benefits and supplemental security income, alleging that she became unable to work due to her disabilities beginning in August 2012. Ms. Lenox has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder, for which she periodically sought treatment. She also began complaining of joint pain in June 2013, and was eventually diagnosed with lupus.

         Ms. Lenox underwent a consultative psychological evaluation by Dr. Todd Snyder in June 2013. Dr. Snyder noted that Ms. Lenox had attended special education classes in school and had attended school only until the ninth grade. As an adult, however, Ms. Lenox had worked in a childcare center for five years, and in a nursing home as a housekeeper for around six months. She also cared for her three children and performed household chores. Dr. Snyder administered an IQ test, which reflected a full scale IQ score of 67. Dr. Snyder noted that an IQ score in that range is typically associated with mild mental retardation (now referred to as intellectual disability), and that she had “significant intellectual aptitude limitations that have limited her success in many job situations and academic pursuits.” (R. 500). However, Dr. Snyder also found that Ms. Lenox's “functional skills for daily living appear to be somewhat higher than that of most individuals with a [full scale IQ] this low.” (R. 500). Accordingly, he concluded that the appropriate diagnosis was “Borderline Intellectual Functioning”-not intellectual disability. Id. He further opined that Ms. Lenox had moderate symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and mild symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder and depression.

         Ms. Lenox later underwent another consultative examination with Dr. Craig Nordstrom. Dr. Nordstrom noted that Ms. Lenox struggled with reading and writing and had “significant deficits in functional academic skills.” (R. 618, 621). He also found, however, that her thought processes appeared logical and her behavior appeared goal-directed, that she was able to care for her personal needs and hygiene, and that she was able to cook and perform household chores. Dr. Nordstrom also noted that Ms. Lenox had run her own childcare business and appeared to function fairly well in math, and he opined that she could manage her funds independently. (R. 620-21). He also noted that she suffered from depressive symptoms that likely caused her to avoid social interaction. Over the course of Ms. Lenox's claim, several agency doctors reviewed her records; none found that she met a listing or that she qualified as intellectually disabled.

         After first appearing at a hearing without representation, Ms. Lenox decided to retain counsel. A new hearing was then convened with counsel present, but that hearing had to be adjourned due to a lack of time. Ms. Lenox thus appeared with counsel before a different ALJ several months later. Ms. Lenox's attorney had previously submitted a brief arguing that she met Listing 12.05C, for intellectual disability. Her attorney also requested that the ALJ obtain records from a previous application for benefits from when Ms. Lenox was a child. He argued that those records would be relevant to showing that her intellectual disability manifested before the age of 22, which is one of the requirements of that listing. The ALJ declined, explaining that the onset date of the condition was not likely to be at issue, but that if it was she would consider those records. (R. 70-71).

         Ms. Lenox then testified at the hearing. She testified that she had lived alone with her three children for the past year, before which she lived with her aunt. She was the only adult in the household and she was the primary caregiver for her children, ages 4, 7, and 13. She testified that she had previously worked at a childcare center, and had also run her own babysitting business for several years, watching up to six kids at a time. She had also worked as a housekeeper in a nursing home. As to her limitations, Ms. Lenox testified that her fingers and legs would occasionally lock up due to her lupus. She also testified that she experienced anxiety and panic attacks, and that someone would always go with her when she went to the store. She also noted that she struggled with reading and writing and had been in special education classes in school. The hearing concluded after testimony from a vocational expert.

         The ALJ subsequently issued a decision finding that Ms. Lenox did not qualify as disabled. The ALJ found at step two that Ms. Lenox had severe impairments including lupus, persistent depressive disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and subaverage intellectual functioning. The ALJ then considered several listings at step three. Of note here, the ALJ found that Ms. Lenox did not meet listing 12.05C, for intellectual disability. In particular, the ALJ found that Ms. Lenox did not meet the diagnostic criteria for intellectual disability, which is a threshold requirement for the listing, because she did not have deficits in adaptive functioning. In support of that finding, the ALJ noted that Ms. Lenox had struggled academically as a child, but that as an adult, she engaged in numerous activities including caring for her children, and she had worked as a babysitter, as a housekeeper, and in a childcare center. The ALJ also noted, among other factors, that Dr. Snyder opined that Ms. Lenox had a higher level of functioning than one would expect based on her IQ scores.

         Having found that Ms. Lenox did not meet a listing, the ALJ proceeded to steps four and five, at which she concluded that Ms. Lenox was unable to perform her past work but could perform other jobs. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Ms. Lenox did not qualify as disabled. The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Ms. Lenox thus filed this action seeking judicial 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. STANDARD FOR DISABILITY

         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 the regulations;
4. Whether the claimant can still perform relevant past work; and
5. Whether the claimant can perform other work in the ...

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