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Beatty v. Berryhill

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

April 22, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Bradley Beatty appeals the Social Security Administration's decision to deny his application for disability benefits. Beatty suffers from several medical issues including degenerative disc disease, keratoconus (a progressive eye disease) with headaches, bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety. [Tr. 410.][1] An administrative law judge found that Beatty was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and that he had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work with some restrictions.

         Beatty challenges the ALJ's decision on three grounds. First, he contends the ALJ's finding that he does not meet or equal Listing 12.04 and 12.06 is not supported by substantial evidence. Second, Beatty argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical opinion evidence. Third, Beatty contends the RFC fails to include all of his impairments. Because I find the ALJ's analysis of the medical opinion evidence is flawed, I will REVERSE the ALJ's decision and REMAND on this issue.


          Mr. Beatty has a number of significant medical and psychological challenges. The ALJ found that Beatty had the severe impairments of status post cervical fusion, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, history of bilateral keratoconus with reported associated headaches, bipolar disorder, adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety/depression, mood disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). [Tr. 17.] Aside from these severe impairments, Beatty also suffered from the non-severe impairments of asthma, obstructive sleep apnea, hyperlipidemia, and hearing loss, which are fully recounted in the ALJ's opinion and which need not be repeated here. [See Tr. at 18.]

         Before diving into the evidence, let's start with a review of the legal framework. My role is not to determine from square one whether or not Beatty 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 particularly demanding. 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).

         My focus will be on the ALJ's handling of Beatty's mental health impairments; there are several deficiencies in that analysis. Beatty argues that the ALJ improperly gave significant weight to the opinions of the state agency psychologists Drs. Ken Lovko and Joelle Larsen, while according only little weight to the opinions of licensed clinical social worker, Jill Uceny, and her supervising physician, Dr. Dean Smith.

         Let's first look at a thumbnail view of the evidence in the record touching on Beatty's mental health. In 2013, Beatty's primary care physician, Dr. Viraj Patel, diagnosed him with depressive disorder and bipolar I disorder without psychotic features. [Tr. 1147.] Beatty took several prescription medications. [Tr. 1148.] Throughout 2014, Beatty was treated and seen by Dr. Shivam Dubey, a psychiatrist at the Bowen Center, who also diagnosed Beatty with bipolar disorder and prescribed additional medication. [Tr. 1198-99.]

         Jill Uceny is a licensed clinical social worker at Brighter Tomorrows. [Tr. 953, 1002.] Uceny had a lengthy treating relationship with Beatty - more than five years. She indicated on the Mental Impairment Questionnaire she completed on September 22, 2014, that she had seen Beatty once or twice a month since 2009. [Tr. 1209.] At that time of the report, Uceny noted that Beatty was on a host of psychotropic drugs: lithium, Wellbutrin, and Prozac to name a few. Id. During the course of her treatment of Beatty, he had been hospitalized at Parkview Behavioral Center in 2011 for a strong suicidal ideal. Id. Indeed, Uceny's bottom line was that Beatty “is chronically mentally ill - his prognosis is poor.” [Tr. 1209, 1218.] In her handwritten notes, Uceny set forth the depths of Beatty's mental illness:

Brad cannot sustain consistent functioning patterns despite his [years] of consistent psychological care [and] his cooperation [with] his doctor's instructions [and] medications. Brad's energy level is extremely low due to lethargy, fatigue [and] generalized physical weakness. Brad does not handle any changes well [and] does not make transitions well. Brad does not handle work stress levels - his psychological symptoms interrupt his work day [and] work week. . . . Brad struggles to remember [and] follow instructions. His lack of ability to do so is historical as it has been a factor in every job loss . . . . Brad desires to work independently, but due to the pervasiveness of his psychological symptoms he is unable to do so ..... Brad struggles [with] his physical hygiene [and] is not able to be consistent in this area. Brad is not able to maintain socially appropriate behavior, which is a main contributing factor as to why he has lost all of his jobs.

[Tr. 1220-21 (emphasis in original).]

         According to Uceny, Beatty's psychiatric condition exacerbates his pain and physical symptoms. [Tr. 1221.] She believed Beatty would be off task due to his psychological problems for 41% of the day or more. [Tr. 1222.] Uceny found Beatty had a “marked” restriction in activities of daily living; “marked” difficulties in maintaining social functioning; “marked” difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace; and that he would be absent from work more than four days each month. [Tr. 1223, 1224.] The questionnaire is signed by Uceny plus there is an additional line containing the printed name and signature of Dean R. Smith, M.D. “Supervising Physician.” [Tr. 1224.]

         From 2014 through 2016, Beatty continued to be treated by Dr. Dubey at the Bowen Center. [Tr. 1196-1207, 1235-1249, 1284-93, 1419-31.] Beatty also continued to see Uceny at Brighter Tomorrows for depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. [Tr. 1389, 1364-97.] In total, the record shows that Uceny met with Beatty at least 41 times from 2009 through 2016. [Tr. 953-991, 1001-17, 1364-97.]

         Both state agency psychologists brushed aside what Uceny has to say; they indicated in their own RFC assessments (which the ALJ accorded significant weight), that they gave Uceny's RFC “no weight” because she “is not an accepted source” and incorrectly stated there was “only one therapy note in support of all cited limitations.” [Tr. 127, 158.] The ALJ did not ...

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