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Coffee v. Berryhill

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

January 22, 2019

SARAH L. COFFEE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Sarah Coffee appeals the Social Security Administration's decision to deny her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. Coffee alleges a disability due largely to Ehlers-Danlos, a connective tissue disorder. [Tr. 218.][1] An administrative law judge found that Coffee was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and that she had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work with only certain restrictions.

         Coffee challenges the ALJ's decision on two grounds. First, she contends the RFC is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the effects of her Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Second, Coffee argues that the ALJ's credibility determination was flawed. Because I find the ALJ's analysis of Coffee's subjective symptoms was not supported by substantial evidence and was not specific enough for me to fully understand the ALJ's reasoning, I will REVERSE the ALJ's decision and REMAND on this issue.


         The ALJ found that Coffee had the severe impairments of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, history of POTS/dysautonomia; cardiac dysrhythmias; left hip dysplasia and labral tear; status post arthroscopy with partial synovectomy and labral repair. [Tr. 14.] Aside from these severe impairments, Coffee had several other medical challenges, as well as the non-medically determinable impairments of carpal tunnel syndrome and migraine headaches, which are fully recounted in the ALJ's opinion and which need not be repeated here. [See Tr. at 14-22.]

         Let's start with a review of the legal framework. I am not supposed to determine from scratch whether or not Coffee is disabled. Rather, I only need to determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Shideler v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 306, 310 (7th Cir. 2012); Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 926 (7th Cir. 2010); Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008). My review of the ALJ's decision is deferential. This is because the “substantial evidence” standard is not a particularly rigorous one. In fact, the Supreme Court announced long ago that the standard is even less than a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Of course, there has to be more than a “scintilla” of evidence. Id. So in conducting my review, I cannot “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). Nonetheless, the review is a light one and the substantial evidence standard is met “if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support the conclusion.” Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004).

         Credibility/Analysis of Subjective Symptoms

         The regulation that previously governed credibility determinations, SSR 96-7p, was superseded by SSR 16-3p in March 2016. Because the ALJ's decision was issued in January 2017, SSR 16-3p is the proper standard for me to consider. SSR 16-3p “eliminat[es] the use of the term ‘credibility' . . . [to] clarify that subjective symptom evaluation is not an examination of an individual's character.” SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, at *1 (Mar. 16, 2016). The “change in wording is meant to clarify that [ALJs] aren't in the business of impeaching claimants' characters; obviously, [ALJs] will continue to assess the credibility of pain assertions by applicants, especially as such assertions often cannot be either credited or rejected on the basis of medical evidence.” Cole v. Colvin, 831 F.3d 411, 412 (7th Cir. 2016) (emphasis in original).

         Under the new regulation an ALJ is still required to consider the same factors in evaluating the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of an individual's symptoms. See SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, at *7; SSR 96-7p. 1996 WL 374186, at *3 (July 2, 1996). The ALJ's determination “must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the individual's symptoms, be consistent with and supported by the evidence, and be clearly articulated so the individual and any subsequent reviewer can assess how the adjudicator evaluated the individual's symptoms.” SSR 16-3P, 2016 WL 1119029, at *9 (Mar. 16, 2016).

         Although courts historically did not overturn the ALJ's credibility determination unless it was “patently wrong, ” Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413-14 (7th Cir. 2008), “a failure to adequately explain his or her credibility finding by discussing specific reasons supported by the record [wa]s grounds for reversal.” Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 937 (7th Cir. 2015) (citing Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 477 (7th Cir 2009)); Brindisi v. Barnhart, 315 F.3d 783, 787-88 (7th Cir. 2003); Salaiz v. Colvin, 202 F.Supp.3d 887, 893 (N.D. Ind. 2016).

         Here, the ALJ addresses Coffee's statements about her symptoms in the following section, which causes me concern:

Even accepting the limited activities alleged at hearing, two factors weigh against considering these allegations to be strong evidence in favor of finding the claimant disabled. First, allegedly limited daily activities cannot be objectively verified with any reasonable degree of certainty. Secondly, even if the claimant's daily activities are truly as limited as alleged, it is difficult to attribute that degree of limitation to the claimant's medical condition, as opposed to other reasons, in view of the relatively weak medical evidence and other factors discussed in this decision. Overall, the claimant's reported limited daily activities are considered to be outweighed by the other facts discussed in this decision.

[Tr. 21.]

         Turning to the first half of the ALJ's comment, it is improper for the ALJ to have discredited Coffee's statements concerning her subjective symptoms because her daily activities cannot be “objectively verified.” The Court in Austin v. Colvin, No. 13 C 7257, 2014 WL 6807841 (N.D. Ill.Dec. 2, 2014), dealt with a similar situation in which a claimant with Ehlers-Danlos claimed the ALJ ...

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