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Hill v. Saul

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

August 22, 2019

NATHAN L. HILL, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO JUDGE

         On August 1, 2018, plaintiff Nathan L. Hill filed a complaint in this Court seeking review of the final decision of the defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security, denying his applications for social security disability benefits[1] [DE 1]. The matter is briefed and ripe for decision [DE 22; DE 25-28]. For the reasons stated below, the Court remands this matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. FACTS

         Mr. Hill alleges that he has been unable to work since January 20, 2012. Mr. Hill suffers from several physical impairments, including chronic back and left shoulder pain. That said, the only issues raised in this appeal concern Mr. Hill's mental impairments and focus primarily on his ability to sustain concentration, persistence, and pace.

         In December 2014, reviewing state agents initially acknowledged that Mr. Hill suffers from a non-severe affective disorder which causes him mild difficulty with maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. (R. at 96-1111). Upon reconsideration in May 2015, the state agents opined that Mr. Hill's mental disorder actually caused him moderate difficulty with maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, along with mild difficulty with his activities of daily living and social functioning. It was further noted that Mr. Hill had suffered from “one or two” episodes of decompensation of an extended duration. (R. at 114-35). In fact, Mr. Hill was hospitalized for almost two weeks in early 2015 for depression with suicidal ideation and personality disorder. Following his discharge, Mr. Hill received continuing psychological treatment and attended therapeutic sessions through the substance abuse clinic.

         During his assessment at the clinic, Mr. Hill was observed as having slow speech and psychomotor activity, concentration issues, and limited insight. (R. at 607-21). It was reported that Mr. Hill did “not seem to appreciate the role of substance use issues in his difficulties.” In May of 2015, Mr. Hill gave his therapist permission to call his sister because Mr. Hill demonstrated that he was a poor historian. It was recommended that Mr. Hill be given intensive case management assistance to help him remember to attend his appointments and take his medications.

         The record demonstrates that Mr. Hill required similar assistance since at least October 2012. At that time, a psychological assessment evidenced that Mr. Hill would likely require assistance managing any funds that he was to be awarded. Mr. Hill was diagnosed with adjustment disorder and depressed mood which rendered him unable to handle routine and/or non-routine changes in the workplace. However, the examining psychologist believed that Mr. Hill could attend and concentrate long enough to complete simple tasks.

         Psychiatry records from 2015 also indicate that Mr. Hill was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, along with auditory hallucinations. His alcohol use disorder and cannabis use disorder were charted as being in remission. By September 2015, Mr. Hill was being treated for ongoing depression, schizoaffective disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A CT scan revealed “shrinkage of brain tissue caused from chronic alcohol abuse.” The following month it was documented that despite remaining alcohol free for approximately one year, Mr. Hill continued to suffer from “profound psychiatric issues.”

         In April 2016, an examining psychologist indicated that Mr. Hill's prognosis was “poor overall” and he was likely to remain relatively stable. A neuropsychological evaluation from July 2016 (R. at 1286-94), revealed that Mr. Hill demonstrated “significantly slowed processing speed, diminished attention, variable executive functioning, and some memory weaknesses.” Although Mr. Hill could perform simple tasks, he did so poorly within time limits. Mr. Hill was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and substance-induced neurocognitive impairment, along with substance use disorders in remission.

         On May 18, 2017, Mr. Hill had a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Lee Lewin (“ALJ”) during which Mr. Hill, Mr. Hill's sister, a vocational expert (“VE”), and a medical expert (“ME”) testified. The ME admittedly had no background in psychology and confined his opinion to assessing Mr. Hill's physical state. Mr. Hill testified to his physical limitations caused by pain and to his suffering from memory problems for over five years. In fact, Mr. Hill indicated that he stopped working in 2005, until he was reminded that it was 2011 when he last worked. Mr. Hill also admitted to recently consuming alcohol and marijuana. Given Mr. Hill's memory problems, Mr. Hill's sister testified on his behalf and indicated that Mr. Hill is not self-sufficient and that he prefers to be alone.

         In response to hypothetical questions posed by the ALJ, the VE testified that a person of Mr. Hill's age and background but limited to medium work (and a few other exertional restrictions) involving only simple, routine tasks with “no fast-paced production rate or strict quota requirements” and only occasional contact with others could perform work as a machine feeder, dining room attendant, and laundry worker. Relying on the VE's testimony that Mr. Hill was capable of performing these jobs (given the above assigned residual functional capacity), [2] the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision for Mr. Hill on August 16, 2017. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Hill's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). Mr. Hill seeks review of the Commissioner's decision, thereby invoking this Court's jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court will affirm the Commissioner's findings of fact and denial of disability benefits if they are supported by substantial evidence. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). This 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, even if “reasonable minds could differ” about the disability status of the claimant, the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision as long as it is adequately supported. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         In this substantial-evidence determination, the Court considers the entire administrative record but does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute the Court's own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Nevertheless, the Court conducts a “critical review of the evidence” before affirming the Commissioner's decision. Id. An ALJ must evaluate both the evidence favoring the claimant as well as the evidence favoring the claim's rejection and may not ignore an entire line of evidence that is contrary to the ALJ's findings. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 888 (7th Cir. 2001). Consequently, an ALJ's decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues. Lopez, 336 F.3d at 539. Ultimately, ...


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