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Morgan F. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

April 29, 2019

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



         Plaintiff Morgan F.[1] requests judicial review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “SSA”), denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act. For the following reasons, the Court remands the decision of the Acting Commissioner.


         On August 26, 2014, Morgan F. filed an application for SSI, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2007. (Filing No. 7-2 at 11.) Her application was initially denied on November 13, 2014, (Filing No. 7-4 at 4), and upon reconsideration on February 26, 2015, (Filing No. 7-4 at 10). Administrative Law Judge Roy E. LaRoche, Jr. (the “ALJ”) conducted a hearing on February 24, 2017, at which Morgan F., represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared and testified. (Filing No. 7-2 at 38-60.) The ALJ issued a decision on April 19, 2017, concluding that Morgan F. was not entitled to receive SSI. (Filing No. 7-2 at 8.) The Appeals Council denied review on March 9, 2018. (Filing No. 7-2 at 2.) On May 7, 2018, Morgan F. timely filed this civil action, asking the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) to review the final decision of the Acting Commissioner denying her benefits. (Filing No. 1.)


         Under the Social Security Act, a claimant may be entitled to benefits only after she establishes that she is disabled. Disability is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous work but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Acting Commissioner employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled despite her medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment that also meets the durational requirement, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). At step three, the Acting Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelve-month duration requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         If the claimant's impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the impairments on the Listing of Impairments, then her residual functional capacity will be assessed and used for the fourth and fifth steps. Residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is the “maximum that a claimant can still do despite [her] mental and physical limitations.” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 675-76 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At the fifth and final step, it must be determined whether the claimant can perform any other work, given her RFC and considering her age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). The claimant is not disabled if she can perform any other work in the relevant economy.

         The combined effect of all the impairments of the claimant shall be considered throughout the disability determination process. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B). The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps; it then shifts to the Acting Commissioner for the fifth step. Young v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992).

         When an applicant appeals an adverse benefits decision, this Court's role is limited to ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). Because the ALJ “is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses, ” Craft, 539 F.3d at 678, this Court must accord the ALJ's credibility determination “considerable deference, ” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong.” Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).

         If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An award of benefits “is appropriate only where all factual issues have been resolved and the record can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).


         Morgan F. was 19 years of age at the time she applied for benefits. (Filing No. 7-5 at 2.) She alleged that she could no longer work due to bipolar disorder, personality disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, and depression. (Filing No. 7-6 at 12.) She completed the ninth grade and did not have any work history. (Filing No. 7-6 at 13).[2]

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the SSA in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) and ultimately concluded that Morgan F. was not disabled. (Filing No. 7-2 at 21.) At step one, the ALJ found that Morgan F. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 26, 2014, the application date.[3] (Filing No. 7-2 at 13.) At step two, the ALJ found that she had the “following severe impairments: asthma, bipolar disorder with psychotic features, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and generalized anxiety disorder (20 CFR 416.920(c)).” (Filing No. 7-2 at 13.) At step three, the ALJ found that she did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (Filing No. 7-2 at 14.) After step three but before step four, the ALJ concluded:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: no more than occasional exposure to atmospheric conditions (gas, fumes, dust, and respiratory irritants); is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements; involving only simple, work-related decisions; with few, if any, workplace changes; occasional contact with supervisors; incidental contact with coworkers; no contact with the public; and would need supervisor checks twice a day.

(Filing No. 7-2 at 16.) At step four, the ALJ concluded that Morgan F. did not have any past relevant work to consider. (Filing No. 7-2 at 20.) At step five, the ALJ found, relying on the testimony of the VE and considering Morgan F.'s age, education, work experience, and RFC, that she was capable of performing other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy in representative occupations such as a sorter, packer, and machine feeder. (Filing No. 7-2 at 20.)


         Morgan F. raises four issues on appeal that the ALJ (1) failed to consider Morgan F.'s individualized response to stress as required by SSR 85-15, (2) ignored a line of evidence concerning her headaches, (3) improperly equated the performance of activities of daily living- including care for her children-with the ability to perform full-time work, and (4) improperly relied on VE testimony that was confusing and convoluted in response to a hypothetical that included a vague limitation that was not adequately explained by the ...

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