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Toth v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

January 8, 2019

COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Amanda Catherine Toth appeals to the district court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”).[1] (DE 1). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be REVERSED, and the case will be REMANDED to the Commissioner for further proceedings in accordance with this Opinion and Order.


         Toth applied for DIB in May 2014, alleging disability as of September 25, 2009. (DE 10 Administrative Record (“AR”) 153-60). The Commissioner denied Toth's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 91-98). After a timely request, a hearing was held on March 22, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge William D. Pierson (the “ALJ”), at which Toth, who was represented by counsel; Toth's mother; and a vocational expert testified. (AR 28-68). On September 15, 2016, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Toth, concluding that she was not disabled because despite the limitations caused by her impairments, she could perform a significant number of jobs in the economy. (AR 10-21). Toth's request for review was denied by the Appeals Council (AR 1-6), at which point the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         Toth filed a complaint with this Court on December 22, 2017, seeking relief from the Commissioner's decision. (DE 1). In the appeal, Toth alleges that the ALJ: (1) improperly evaluated whether she met listing 12.05C, intellectual disability; and (2) failed to incorporate the ALJ's finding of moderate deficits in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace into the hypothetical posed to the vocational expert at step five. (DE 18 at 11-22).

         At the time of the ALJ's decision, Toth was 26 years old (AR 21, 154) and had a certificate of completion from high school, which involved special education classes (AR 200). She was working part time as a pet bather at a pet salon five to six days a week, and had been performing this work since 2009. (AR 239, 267, 270). Toth alleges disability due to: intellectual disability, mild; depressive disorder; general anxiety disorder; bipolar disorder; and Coffin-Lowry Syndrome.[2] (DE 18 at 2).


         Section 405(g) of the Act grants this Court “the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner], with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court's task is limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, which means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). The decision will be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ applied an erroneous legal standard. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted).

         To determine if substantial evidence exists, the Court reviews the entire administrative record but does not reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Id. Rather, if the findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. Jens v. Barnhart, 347 F.3d 209, 212 (7th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). “In other words, so long as, in light of all the evidence, reasonable minds could differ concerning whether [the claimant] is disabled, we must affirm the ALJ's decision denying benefits.” Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 978 (7th Cir. 1996).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Law

         Under the Act, a claimant is entitled to DIB if she establishes an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to . . . last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1), 423(d)(1)(A). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).

         The Commissioner evaluates disability claims pursuant to a five-step evaluation process, requiring consideration of the following issues, in sequence: (1) whether the claimant is currently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the Commissioner, see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1; (4) whether the claimant is unable to perform her past work; and (5) whether the claimant is incapable of performing work in the national economy.[3] See Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. An affirmative answer leads either to the next step or, on steps three and five, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). A negative answer at any point other than step three stops the inquiry and leads to a finding that the claimant is not disabled. Id. (citation omitted). The burden of proof lies with the claimant at every step except the fifth, where it shifts to the Commissioner. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868 (citation omitted).

         B. The Commissioner's Final Decision

         On September 15, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision that ultimately became the Commissioner's final decision. (AR 10-21). At step one, the ALJ concluded that Toth had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after her alleged onset date of September 25, 2009. (AR 12). At step two, the ALJ found that Toth's borderline intellectual functioning arising from Coffin-Lowery Syndrome was a severe impairment. (AR 12). At step three, the ALJ concluded that Toth did not have an impairment or combination of impairments severe enough to meet or equal a listing. (AR 12-14).

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that Toth's symptom testimony was not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence of record. (AR 15). The ALJ then assigned Toth the following RFC:

[T]he claimant has the [RFC] to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant [is limited] to only occasional decision making and only occasional changes in the work setting. The claimant can tolerate predictable changes in the work environment that allows her to sustain a flexible and goal oriented pace. The claimant is limited from fast-paced work such as assembly line production work with rigid or strict productivity requirements. The claimant is limited to work that involves only simple, routine and repetitive tasks that could be learned through short demonstration and up to thirty days. The claimant can maintain the concentration required to perform simple tasks. The claimant can remember simple work like procedures. The claimant can make simple work-related decisions. The claimant can read at . . . least the fourth grade level. She can read lists and address labels, but is not to perform work requiring extensive manual reading.

(AR 14). Based on the assigned RFC and the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found at step four that Toth was unable to perform her past relevant work, commenting that this finding was “generous in nature” since she was still performing such work. (AR 20). At step five, the ALJ found that Toth could perform a significant number of other jobs in the economy, including cleaner/housekeeper ...

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