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Martin v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 22, 2019

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



         Plaintiff Gail A. Martin appeals to the district court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying her application under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”).[1] For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Martin applied for DIB in August 2011, alleging disability as of September 25, 2009. (DE 8 Administrative Record (“AR”) 214-18). In October 2012, administrative law judge Melinda W. Kirkpatrick (“ALJ Kirkpatrick”) conducted a hearing. (AR 32-116, 604-75). On November 27, 2012, ALJ Kirkpatrick rendered an unfavorable decision, which Martin appealed to the district court. (AR 14-25, 724-745); see Martin v. Colvin, No. 1:14-CV-00078-SLC, 2015 WL 3617834 (N.D. Ind. June 9, 2015).

         In February 2014, Martin file a new application for DIB, alleging disability as of November 2012. (AR 938-39). Martin was last insured for DIB purposes on December 31, 2014 (AR 519), and therefore, she must establish that she was disabled as of that date, see Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1154 (7th Cir. 1997) (explaining that with respect to a DIB claim, a claimant must establish that she was disabled as of her date last insured in order to recover DIB). On June 9, 2015, the district court remanded Martin's case to the Commissioner to reassess Martin's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Martin, 2015 WL 3617834, at *7. On October 23, 2015, the Appeals Council vacated and remanded ALJ Kirkpatrick's decision, combining Martin's initial application for DIB with her February 2014 application “for further proceedings consistent with the order of the [district] court.” (AR 746-50).

         On February 18, 2016, administrative law judge William Pierson (“ALJ Pierson”) held a hearing at which Martin, who was represented by counsel; Martin's boyfriend, Beecher Hines; and vocational expert Richard Oestreich (the “VE”) testified. (AR 561-603). On March 29, 2016, ALJ Pierson rendered an unfavorable decision, finding that Martin was not disabled. (AR 514-53). Martin requested that the Appeals Council review ALJ Pierson's decision, but the Appeals Council denied her request, making ALJ Pierson's decision the final, appealable decision of the Commissioner. (AR 508-13).

         On February 8, 2018, Martin filed the complaint in this action, seeking relief from the Commissioner's final decision. (DE 1). In her appeal, Martin alleges that ALJ Pierson: (1) failed to adhere to the instructions of the district court's previous remand of Martin's case; (2) inappropriately discredited the opinions of two state agency physicians in crafting the RFC; (3) failed to provide adequate reasoning for rejecting an assessment by Jeremy Lewis LMFT; and (4) did not account for her moderate limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace in the RFC or the hypothetical to the VE. (DE 16 at 7-25).


         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).

         In determining whether Martin is disabled as defined by the Act, ALJ Pierson conducted the familiar five-step analytical process, which required him to consider 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 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.[2] See Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001); 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). 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. The burden of proof lies with the claimant at every step except the fifth, where it shifts to the Commissioner. Id. at 885-86.

         At step one, ALJ Pierson found that Martin had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from March 9, 2010, through her date last insured, December 31, 2014. (AR 520). At step two, ALJ Pierson found that Martin had the following severe impairments: generalized anxiety disorder/panic disorder, mood disorder/depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. (AR 520-28).

         At step three, ALJ Pierson concluded that Martin did not have an impairment or combination of impairments severe enough to meet or equal a listing. (AR 528-31). Before proceeding to step four, ALJ Pierson assigned Martin the following RFC:

[She] had the physical [RFC] to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels. [Martin] retained the mental [RFC] to perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks that could be learned through short demonstration and/or over a period of up to thirty days. She could maintain the concentration required to perform simple tasks, remember simple work-like procedures, and make simple work-related decisions. [Martin] was limited to a low-stress job defined as requiring only occasional decision making and only occasional changes in the work setting. She could tolerate predictable changes in the work environment and meet production requirements in an environment that allowed her to sustain a flexible and goal[-]oriented pace. As to social interactions, [Martin] was limited to superficial interactions with co-workers, supervisors, and the public, with superficial defined as occasional and casual contact not involving prolonged conversation with contact with supervisors still involving necessary instruction.

(AR 531). Based on this RFC, ALJ Pierson found at step four that Martin could not perform her past relevant work. (AR 542-43). ALJ Pierson considered the testimony of the VE and other evidence in the record and determined at step five that Martin could perform other jobs in the national economy that exist in significant numbers, and therefore, her application for DIB was denied. (AR 543-44).


         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 of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court's task is limited to determining whether an 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 an ALJ applied an erroneous legal standard. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000).

         To determine if substantial evidence exists, the Court reviews the entire administrative record but does not re-weigh 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. Id. Nonetheless, “substantial evidence” review should not be a simple rubber-stamp of the Commissioner's decision. Id. (citing Ehrhart v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 969 F.2d 534, 538 (7th Cir. 1992)).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. The Law of the Case Doctrine

         Martin contends that ALJ Pierson violated “the law of the case doctrine” by failing to implement the district court's findings-that is, from Martin's first appeal of the Commissioner's decision-regarding the severity of Martin's limitations.

         “The law of the case doctrine requires that ‘once an appellate court either expressly or by necessary implication decides an issue, the decision will be binding upon all subsequent proceedings in the same case.'” Middleton v. Berryhill, No. 16 CV 11136, 2018 WL 4384566, at *6 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 14, 2018) (emphasis in original) (quoting Key v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 1056, 1060 (7th Cir. 1991)). “The law of the case doctrine is equally applicable to judicial review of administrative decisions.” Alesia v. Berryhill, No. 16 CV 9806, 2018 WL 3920534, at *6 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 16, 2018) (citation omitted). “It requires the administrative agency, on remand from a court, to conform its further proceedings in the case to the principles set forth in the judicial decision, unless there is a compelling reason to depart.” Wilder v. Apfel, 153 F.3d 799, 803 (7th Cir. 1998). A court or administrative body involved in a later phase of a lawsuit may not re-open questions decided by a higher court or in an earlier phase of the lawsuit. Larsen v. U.S. Navy, 887 F.Supp.2d 247, 251 (D.D.C. 2012) (citing Crocker v. Piedmont Aviation, Inc., 49 F.3d 735, 739 (D.C.Cir.1995)). “A ruling that evidence was insufficient to support some finding is the type of ruling that establishes the law of the case.” Wilder, 153 F.3d at 803.

         In Martin's previous case, ALJ Kirkpatrick found at step three that Martin had moderate limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. (AR 21). The district court determined that ALJ Kirkpatrick failed to expressly account for these limitations in crafting the RFC and the hypothetical to the vocational expert. See Martin, 2015 WL 3617834, at *7. The district court rejected the Commissioner's assertion that ALJ Kirkpatrick accommodated Martin's moderate limitations by limiting her to only occasional social interactions. Id. Thus, the district court ordered a remand of the Commissioner's decision “for the purpose of reassessing Martin's RFC.” Id. at *8.

         The district court's holding, which became the law of the case, was that the assigned RFC and the hypothetical to the vocational expert were not supported by substantial evidence because they did not adequately take into account ALJ Kirkpatrick's conclusion that Martin had moderate deficits in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace.

         Martin argues that ALJ Pierson failed to adhere to the law of the case doctrine by departing from the district court's supposed finding that Martin is limited to performing light work. But the district court's holding establishes that it did not conclude that Martin is limited to light work. In fact, the district court did not make any findings regarding Martin's limitations that constitute “law of the case.” At most, the district court affirmed ALJ Kirkpatrick's finding that Martin has moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. But even if such a finding did become “law of the case, ” ALJ Pierson still did not violate the law of the case doctrine because he found that Martin has moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. (See AR 528-31). Therefore, ALJ Pierson's decision will not be remanded based on Martin's argument regarding the law of the case doctrine.

         B. The RFC Assigned by Dr. Sands and Confirmed by Dr. Ruiz

         The RFC is “the individual's maximum remaining ability to do sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis, ” meaning eight hours a day, for five days a week. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *2 (July 2, 1996); see Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000-02 (7th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1) (“Your [RFC] is the most you can still do despite your limitations.”). The RFC assessment “is based upon consideration of all relevant evidence in the case record, including medical evidence . . . .” SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *5 (July 2, 1996); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545.

         The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has stated that “more weight is generally given to the opinion of a treating physician because of his greater familiarity with the claimant's conditions and circumstances.” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 870 (citations omitted); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). Each medical opinion, other than a treating physician's opinion, must be evaluated pursuant to factors articulated in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) to determine the proper weight to apply to it. See White v. Barnhart, 415 F.3d 654, 658-60 (7th Cir. 2005). One factor an ALJ may consider is the extent to which an opinion is supported by the record. Long v. Comm'r Soc. Sec., No. 2:15-CV-408-JEM, 2017 WL 1161012, at *3 (N.D. Ind. Mar. 28, 2017) (quoting SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *3, 5). Finally, although an ALJ ...

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