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Amanda S. G. v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

September 23, 2019

AMANDA S. G., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT.

         Amanda G. applied for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging that she is unable to work due to her severe mental impairments of bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression. In formulating Ms. G.’s residual functional capacity, the ALJ improperly evaluated opinion evidence demonstrating Ms. G.’s difficulties with concentration, persistence, and pace and with social functioning. In addition, although the ALJ considered new Listings 12.04 and 12.06, the ALJ relied on opinion evidence given under the prior listings without acknowledging the changes and did not properly discuss why Ms. G. does not meet the Listings. Remand is required for these reasons.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Until she stopped working in 2008, Ms. G. had worked as a certified nursing assistant and a bench press operator. Ms. G. has some physical impairments, which include lower back pain from a motor vehicle collision in 2001, but they are not severe for purposes of the disability determination. Ms. G. suffers from the mental impairments of bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression, all of which the ALJ found to be severe. Ms. G.’s treatment history includes diagnoses for major depressive disorder, severe without psychotic features, and generalized anxiety disorder in 2007. Over the years she was treated for her psychological disorders and was prescribed medication. In 2013, Ms. G. was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, most recent episode depressed, and anxiety disorder. From 2012 to 2017, Ms. G. received medication management at the Bowen Center, the records of which reveal an ongoing attempt to identify the most effective medication. In February 2017, Ms. G. reported at her medication management appointment that she was “just surviving, ” rating her depression as a 9/10. AR 1309. Although she attended some counseling in 2012, Ms. G. did not respond to requests for further appointments.

         The ALJ held a hearing on Ms. G.’s first application for benefits in August 2013, and, on January 14, 2014, the ALJ found Ms. G. not disabled. On September 17, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Ms. G.’s request for review, and Ms. G. filed a civil action under cause number 1:14-cv-356, challenging the unfavorable January 14, 2014 decision. Meanwhile, Ms. G. filed new applications for benefits in October 2014, which were denied initially and upon reconsideration. On October 4, 2016, the Court issued an opinion and order remanding Ms. G.’s first case for further proceedings. On January 9, 2017, the Appeals Council remanded the first case to the ALJ for further proceedings, consolidating the remand with the subsequent claim filed in October 2014.

         On May 31, 2017, the ALJ conducted a new hearing, and, on June 21, 2017, the ALJ issued a new decision. The ALJ made the following residual functional capacity finding:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the physical residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all levels of exertion. She retains the mental residual functional capacity to perform simple, routine and repetitive tasks that a worker can learn through short demonstration and up to thirty days. She can maintain the concentration required to perform simple tasks, remember simple work like procedures, and make simple work related decisions. She can maintain the attention and concentration as well as the persistence to perform such duties on a day-in and day-out basis, for eight hours per day, five days per week or within some other form of full time competitive work environment. As to social contacts, she is limited to superficial interactions with co-workers, supervisors, and public with superficial interaction defined as occasional and casual contact not involving prolonged conversation or discussion of involved issues. Her contact with supervisors still involves necessary instruction. The claimant is limited to work within a low stress job defined as requiring only occasional decision making and only occasional changes in the work setting. She can tolerate predictable changes in her workplace environment.

AR 687. Finding that Ms. G. could perform other work in the economy, the ALJ found that Ms. G. was not disabled. The Appeals Council declined review, and Ms. G. filed this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Because the Appeals Council denied review, the Court evaluates the ALJ’s decision as the final word of the Commissioner of Social Security. Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013). This Court will affirm the Commissioner’s findings of fact and denial of 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). 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).

         The ALJ has the duty to weigh the evidence, resolve material conflicts, make independent findings of fact, and dispose of the case accordingly. Perales, 402 U.S. at 399–400. In evaluating the ALJ’s decision, 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 his or her findings. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001). The ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and the conclusions. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009).

         III. STANDARD FOR DISABILITY

         Disability benefits are available only to those individuals who can establish disability under the terms of the Social Security Act. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998). Specifically, the claimant must be unable “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). The Social Security regulations create a five-step process to determine whether the claimant qualifies as disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)–(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)–(v). The steps are to be used in the following order:

1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity;
2. Whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment;
3. Whether the claimant’s impairment meets or equals one listed in ...

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