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Earnhart v. Berryhill

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

August 16, 2019

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



         Jaime Earnhart appeals the Social Security Administration's decision to deny her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Earnhart alleged she is disabled due to the following conditions: osteoarthritis in the knees, GERD, endometriosis, migraines interstitial cystitis, as well as mental health disorders. [A.R 79.][1] The main focus throughout the ALJ's opinion and thus this opinion as well, is on Earnhart's migraines caused by her endometriosis. The ALJ found that Earnhart was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and that she had the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform a range of sedentary work with some restrictions and could perform her past relevant work as an electrical design engineer.

         On appeal, Earnhart challenges this result. Earnhart claims the ALJ failed to account for all of her impairments as part of the RFC and specifically, failed to account for time off task due to her debilitating migraine headaches. She says this was the result of the ALJ's failure to adequately consider medical opinion evidence and migraine journals offered into evidence. Earnhart also claims the ALJ failed to provide a more-than-perfunctory evaluation of whether her migraine headaches could equal listing 11.02(a) and failed to consider an expert opinion on the subject. I agree with Earnhart that the ALJ failed to adequately consider and address the relevant evidence and thus failed to adequately support his findings. Because the ALJ in this case did not adequately consider and evaluate all of the relevant evidence, his ultimate finding that Earnhart is not disabled cannot stand. Accordingly, the ALJ's decision will be reversed.


         Ms. Earnhart filed her initial application on December 15, 2016. At the time of the hearing, she was 39 years old. [A.R. 31.] She is a navy veteran, a mother of three children and had a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering technology. [A.R. 31-32.] She alleged disability beginning January 20, 2011. [A.R 79.] Her endometriosis caused her to have stomach flu-like symptoms by causing scar tissue to pull on the nerves in her abdomen which trigger migraines. She said these migraines occur on average 10 days a month and averaging about five hours in duration each occurrence. [A.R. 39, 41.] Endometriosis causes her constant abdominal pain which worsens with any kind of abdominal activity, such as walking too much, taking too big of a step, and twisting the wrong way. [A.R. 41.] Earnhart also has lesions on her bladder and bowels causing damage to the lining of her bladder, diagnosed as interstitial cystitis. This condition causes her to feel as if she has a bladder infection and causes irritable bowel syndrome. [A.R. 39.] Lastly, an allergy to dust also triggers her migraines, with no treatment other than to lay down, take medicine, and wait for it to pass. [A.R. 42.]

         In evaluating Earnhart's application, the ALJ engaged in the familiar five-step process to determine disability. At step one, the ALJ found that Earnhart did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of January 20, 2011. [A.R 12.]

         At step two, the ALJ determined whether Earnhart had any severe impairments which could render her disabled. The ALJ found the following severe impairments: endometriosis, interstitial cystitis, and migraines. [A.R 12.] Earnhart also alleged disability based upon degenerative changes in the left knee and degenerative joint disease of the first metatarsophalangeal joint of the right foot. [A.R. 15-16.] The ALJ determined that these impairments did not impose more than minimal limitations on Earnhart's functioning and, therefore, were nonsevere. [Id.] Lastly, Earnhart alleged disability based on mental impairments of dysthymic disorder, major depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder. The ALJ found that these disorders did not cause more than minimal limitations on Earnhart's ability to perform basic mental work activities and were, therefore, nonsevere. In order to come to this conclusion, the ALJ went through the four areas of mental functioning criteria. The first area is understanding, remembering, or applying information. The ALJ found that Earnhart had a mild limitation because she only had problems when she was having a migraine and reported no problems otherwise following written or spoken instructions. [A.R 13.] The next area is interacting with others. The ALJ found that she had a mild limitation based on feeling lonely, lacking good friends, and conflicts with a roommate, but she also reported participating in other social activities and had no problem getting along with others. [Id.] The third area is concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace. The ALJ found that she had a mild limitation because she reported no problems with attention or concentration difficulties, but found pace was likely limited due to pain. [Id.] The last functional area is adapting or managing oneself. The ALJ found that she had a mild limitation because she reported no problems doing normal daily activities but had to lay down in pain a lot. [A.R 12-13.] Therefore, because the ALJ found no limitation to be more than mild, the mental impairments were nonsevere. [A.R 13.]

         Based on these findings, the ALJ found that Earnhart did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526. [A.R 14.] The ALJ gave specific attention to the following listings: 6.00 (genitourinary disorder), SSR 15-1p (interstitial cystitis), and 11.00 (neurological disorders).

         Finding she did not meet any listing, the ALJ went on to determine her Residual Functional Capacity to be as follows:

to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except she could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant must have avoided unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, and operating a motor vehicle. She could tolerate occasional exposure to dust, odors, fumes, and other pulmonary irritants in the work environment. The claimant could tolerate moderate noise in the work environment.

[A.R 14-15.] In reaching this RFC determination, the ALJ stated he considered all symptoms and analyzed the consistency of the symptoms with the objective and opinion evidence. Next, the ALJ evaluated the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of Earnhart's symptoms to determine the extent to which they limit her functional limitations. Apart from the objective medical evidence, the subjective weighing of opinions came from Kathryn Nicholson, MSN, FNP (given little weight); the Department of Veterans' Affairs (given little weight); Joshua Eskonen, D.O., the medical consultant at the reconsideration level (given little weight); and Elaine Earnhart, Earnhart's daughter (given some weight). The ALJ's written decision does not discuss Jessica Glassman, a nurse practitioner with the VA who also offered medical opinion testimony on Earnhart's behalf.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Earnhart could perform past relevant work as an electrical design engineer based on the hypotheticals asked by the ALJ judge to the vocational expert (VE). The VE further testified that given the hypothetical limitations she could hold sedentary jobs as an addresser, document preparer and table worker/inspector. [A.R 19.] Based on this evidence, the ALJ found Earnhart to be not disabled and her application was denied.


         My role in reviewing the ALJ's decision is generally deferential. I look 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). 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). The ALJ does not have to “discuss every piece of evidence, but when the ALJ fails to support [their] conclusions adequately, remand is appropriate.” Jelinek v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 811 (7th Cir. 2011). “[A]n ALJ cannot rely only on the evidence that supports [their] opinion.” Bates v. Colvin, ...

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