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Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 25, 2019

CAROL JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MICHAEL G. GOTSCH, SR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Carol Johnson (“Johnson”) filed her complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's final decision to deny her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. This Court may enter a ruling in this matter based on the parties' consent pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons discussed below, this Court reverses the Commissioner's final decision and remands the decision to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Procedure

         Johnson filed an application for SSI, alleging an onset date of November 13, 2013. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her application initially on September 2, 2014, and upon reconsideration on September 18, 2014. Johnson appealed and testified before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) via video hearing on October 5, 2016. Prior to the hearing, Johnson amended her alleged onset date to June 20, 2014. On December 16, 2016, having found that Johnson was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act, the ALJ issued his decision denying Johnson's application for SSI. On September 12, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Johnson's timely request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         On November 9, 2017, Johnson filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On April 25, 2018, Johnson filed her opening brief. Thereafter, on June 19, 2018, the Commissioner filed a responsive memorandum asking the Court to affirm the decision denying Johnson's benefits. Johnson filed her reply brief on July 19, 2018.

         II. Relevant Background

         Johnson seeks SSI based on symptoms of borderline intellectual functioning, diabetes, obesity, and anxiety disorder that allegedly make her unable to work. Johnson completed high school in 1992 and was enrolled in special education classes from 1978 to 1992. She has worked in the past as a dishwasher, a restaurant mascot, and a hotel housekeeper. Johnson testified that she stopped working due to insulin reactions and difficulties with her supervisors.

         At the hearing, Johnson testified that she has never been married, lives with her mother, and has never had a driver's license. Johnson testified that her diabetes causes insulin reactions about every two and a half weeks, which cause her to lose focus and break out in a sweat. Johnson also testified she has difficulties with math questions, but can help with grocery shopping and helped care for her ailing father before his death. Johnson stated that she is shy but can interact easily with her friends. Finally, Johnson testified that she occasionally experiences panic or anxiety attacks at night.

         After the hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision reflecting the following findings based on the five-step disability evaluation prescribed in the SSA's regulations. See20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). At step one, the ALJ found that Johnson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of June 20, 2014. At step two, the ALJ found that Johnson has the following severe impairments: borderline intellectual functioning, diabetes mellitus, and obesity. However, the ALJ did not find that Johnson's alleged mental impairment of anxiety disorder was severe. At step three, the ALJ found that Johnson's severe impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of the one the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         At step four, the ALJ considered Johnson's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The ALJ concluded that Johnson has the ability to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c) with some limitations. The limitations are as follows:

[Johnson is] limited to no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; no exposure to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts; limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, but not at production rate (e.g. assembly line work); can frequently interact with supervisors and coworkers; occasionally interact with the public; no more than occasional decision-making or changes in job setting; and in addition to normal breaks, will be off task up to 10% of the time in an 8 hour workday.

[DE 13 at 19]. At step four, the ALJ found Johnson capable of performing her past relevant work as a housekeeper and dishwasher. The ALJ also found that other jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Johnson can perform, such as janitor and food prep.

         Based on these findings, the ALJ determined that Johnson has not been under a disability, as defined by the Social Security Act, from June 20, 2014. Johnson requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. On September 12, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Johnson's timely request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See Fast v. Barnhart, 397 F.3d 468, 470 (7th Cir. 2005).

         III. Analysis

         A. Standard of Review

         On judicial review, the Social Security Act requires that the Court accept the Commissioner's factual findings if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). Thus, a court reviewing the findings of an ALJ will reverse only if the findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ has applied an erroneous legal standard. Briscoe v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). Substantial 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, substantial evidence is simply “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Kepple v. Massanari, 268 F.3d 513, 516 (7th Cir. 2001).

         A court reviews the entire administrative record but does not reconsider facts, re-weigh the evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, decide questions of credibility or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Boiles v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 421, 425 (7th Cir. 2005). Thus, the question upon judicial review is not whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled, but whether the ALJ “uses the correct legal standards and the decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Roddy v. Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2013). The ALJ must build a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion, and a reviewing court is not to substitute its own opinion for that of the ALJ or to re-weigh the evidence. Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005).

         Minimally, an ALJ must articulate his analysis of the evidence in order to allow the reviewing court to trace the path of her reasoning and to confirm that the ALJ considered the important evidence. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2005). To assist the reviewing court, the ALJ must provide at least a glimpse into the reasoning behind his analysis and the decision to deny benefits. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 889 (7th Cir. 2001). However, where the ALJ's decision “lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded.” Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).

         B. Issues for Review

         Johnson argues that the ALJ's decision should be reversed for the following reasons: (1) the ALJ's made insufficient or deficient findings with regard to impairment listings; (2) the ALJ's failure to evaluate the 2016 medical opinions of Dr. Arshad and social worker Ms. Dugan-Marx, both from the Swanson Center; (3) the ALJ's accordance of limited weight to the medical opinion of psychological consultative examiner Dr. Sacks and the third-party statement of Johnson's mother; and (4) the ALJ's RFC determination and subsequent hypothetical as relayed to the vocational expert. The Court will handle each argument in turn.

         1. Impairment Listings

         At step three of the analysis, the ALJ determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments is of a severity to meet or medically equal the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments is of a severity to meet or medically equal the criteria of a listing and meets the duration requirement, the claimant is disabled. Id. If it does not, the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id. Here, the ALJ examined Johnson's severe impairments considering Listing 12.05: Intellectual Disabilities.[1] The ALJ found that Johnson did not meet the requirements of paragraphs A, B, C, or D, and thus proceeded to the next step in the analysis. Johnson argues that the ALJ erred in his analysis of Listing 12.05B and 12.05C, which would have automatically qualified Johnson for benefits if satisfied. Further, Johnson contends that the ALJ erred in not mentioning or considering Listing 12.02.

         In order to satisfy the requirements for any paragraph under Listing 12.05, the claimant must first prove “significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning with deficits in adaptive functioning initially manifested during the developmental period.” 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.05. Thus, the claimant must show evidence that demonstrates or supports onset of the impairment before the age of 22. The required level of severity is met when the requirements in ...


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