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Rhiana J. v. Saul

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

September 4, 2019

RHIANA J., [1] Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Rhiana J. protectively filed for supplemental security income (“SSI”) from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) on January 13, 2015, alleging an onset date of June 1, 2001. [ECF No. 10-2 at 17.] Her application was initially denied on March 17, 2015, [ECF No. 10-4 at 2], and upon reconsideration on July 23, 2015, [ECF No. 10-4 at 11]. Administrative Law Judge Jody Hilger Odell (the “ALJ”) conducted a hearing on April 20, 2017. [ECF No. 10-2 at 35-56.] The ALJ issued a decision on October 6, 2017, concluding that Rhiana J. was not entitled to receive SSI. [ECF No. 10-2 at 14.] The Appeals Council denied review on August 20, 2018.[2] [ECF No. 10-2 at 8.] On October 11, 2018, Rhiana J. timely filed this civil action asking the Court to review the denial of benefits according to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). [ECF No. 1.]


         Standard of Review

          “The Social Security Act authorizes payment of disability insurance benefits … to individuals with disabilities.” Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 214 (2002). “The statutory definition of ‘disability' has two parts. First, it requires a certain kind of inability, namely, an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. Second, it requires an impairment, namely, a physical or mental impairment, which provides reason for the inability. The statute adds that the impairment must be one that has lasted or can be expected to last … not less than 12 months.” Id. at 217.

         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 v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008), 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).

         The ALJ must apply the five-step inquiry set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v), evaluating the following, in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently [un]employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed by the [Commissioner]; (4) whether the claimant can perform her past work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.

Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted) (alterations in original). “If a claimant satisfies steps one, two, and three, she will automatically be found disabled. If a claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then she must satisfy step four. Once step four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.” Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).

         After Step Three, but before Step Four, the ALJ must determine a claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) by evaluating “all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009). In doing so, the ALJ “may not dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling.” Id. The ALJ uses the RFC at Step Four to determine whether the claimant can perform her own past relevant work and if not, at Step Five to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e), (g). The burden of proof is on the claimant for Steps One through Four; only at Step Five does the burden shift to the Commissioner. See Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

         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).



         Rhiana J. was 23 years of age at the time she applied for SSI. [ECF No. 10-5 at 2.] She has completed high school with a history of special education and had never worked. [ECF No. 10-6 at 7.][3]

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the Social Security Administration in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) and ultimately concluded that Rhiana J. was not disabled. [ECF No. 10-2 at 28.] Specifically, the ALJ found as follows:

• At Step One, Rhiana J. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity[4] since January 13, 2015, the application date.[5] [ECF No. 10-2 at 19.]
• At Step Two, she had “the following severe impairments: irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, migraine headaches, obesity, asthma, depressive disorder and anxiety.” [ECF No. 10-2 at 19 (citation omitted).]
• At Step Three, Rhiana J. did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. [ECF No. 10-2 at 19.]
• After Step Three but before Step Four, she had the RFC “to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a) except the claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl and can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can work in an environment with a moderate noise intensity (level three or less as set forth in the Department of Labor noise intensity chart). The claimant can never be exposed to pulmonary irritants such as concentrated fumes, odors, dusts, or gasses. The claimant is limited to simple, routine tasks and can occasionally interact with co-workers and supervisors, and never interact with the general public. The claimant requires [an] additional two or three breaks of approximately five minutes each every day in addition to regularly scheduled breaks.” [ECF No. 10-2 at 21.]
• At Step Four, there was no past relevant work to consider. [ECF No. 10-2 at 27.]
• At Step Five of the analysis, relying on the testimony of the vocational expert (“VE”) and considering Rhiana J.'s age, education, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she could have performed through the date of the decision. [ECF No. 10-2 at 27-28.]



         Rhiana J. raises three assignments of error, that the ALJ: (1) did not consider possibly equaling of Listing 11.02 or properly utilize a medical expert to evaluate the listing, (2) did not provide a logical bridge between the evidence of migraines and her RFC conclusion that Rhiana J. was able to sustain work, and (3) failed to properly evaluate Rhiana J.'s subjective symptoms according to Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 16-3p.

         A. Listing 11.02

         In acknowledgment that there is no specific listing for migraine headaches, Rhiana J. presents nonbinding decisional, district court authority and “the SSA's nonbinding, internal procedures (called the Program Operations Manual System, or “POMS”) which operationalize (and interpret) the regulation[s], ” Shawn G. v. Berryhill, No. 1:18-cv-00570-JMS-TAB, 2018 WL 3721393, at *4 (S.D. Ind. Aug. 6, 2018), that the closest analogy to consider in whether migraines equal a listing is a listing for seizures. [ECF No. 12 at 18-20.] The regulations provide that the SSA will consider analogous listings if the claimant has an impairment that is not listed:

If you have an impairment(s) that is not described in the Listing of Impairments in appendix 1 of subpart P of part 404 of this chapter, we will compare your findings with those for closely analogous listed impairments. If the findings related to your impairment(s) are at least of equal medical significance to those of a listed impairment, we will find that your impairment(s) is medically equivalent to the analogous listing.

20 C.F.R. § 416.926(b)(2).

         In considering whether a claimant's condition meets or equals a listed impairment, an ALJ must discuss the listing by name and offer more than a perfunctory analysis of the listing. See Brindisi ex rel. Brindisi v. Barnhart, 315 F.3d 783, 786 (7th Cir. 2003); Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595-96 (7th Cir. 2003). For example, in Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935-36 (7th Cir. 2015), the Seventh Circuit found the ALJ's perfunctory analysis to warrant remand when it was coupled with significant evidence of record that arguably supported the listing. See Kastner v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 642, 647-48 (7th Cir. 2012) (remanding where the ALJ's cursory listing analysis failed to articulate a rationale for denying benefits when the record supported finding in the claimant's favor)). To demonstrate that an ALJ's listing conclusion was not supported by substantial evidence, the claimant must identify evidence of record that was misstated or ignored which met or equaled the criteria. See, e.g., Sims v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 424, 429-30 (7th Cir. 2002).

         Rhiana J. does not specifically explain how the evidence of migraines equaled Listing 11.02 for seizures by detailing which alternative requirements of the listing were equaled. Listing 11.02 is satisfied generally by epilepsy “documented by a detailed description of a typical seizure and characterized by A, B, C, or D [providing the following additional requirements]:”

A. Generalized tonic-clonic seizures (see 11.00H1a), occurring at least once a month for at least 3 consecutive months (see 11.00H4) despite adherence to ...

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