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Gail M. M. v. Berryhill

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

September 23, 2019

GAIL M. M.[1], Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Gail M. (“Ms. M”) filed her complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner’s final decision to deny her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits under Titles II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act respectively. This Court may enter a ruling in this matter based on the parties’ consent pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons discussed below, this Court REMANDS the Commissioner’s final decision for further proceedings.


         In her DIB and SSI applications dated April 22, 2014, Ms. M alleged an onset date of October 1, 2013. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her application initially and upon reconsideration leading Ms. M to request a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). Ms. M and her aunt, Ms. Williams, testified at the ALJ hearing on January 6, 2017. On March 10, 2017, the ALJ issued his decision denying Ms. M’s applications for disability benefits having found her not to be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. On April 10, 2017, the Appeals Council denied her timely request for review making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See Fast v. Barnhart, 397 F.3d 468, 470 (7th Cir. 2005).

         Now ripe before this Court is Ms. M’s request for judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         Ms. M seeks disability benefits based on her impairments of carpal tunnel syndrome, orthopedic issues in her back, hips, knees, and ankles, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), and depression. Ms. M worked previously at a hospital on the cleaning staff.

         At the ALJ hearing, Ms. M appeared anxious and testified that she was scared. In fact, both the ALJ and her attorney had to reassure her multiple times about the process and offer suggestions to calm her. In describing her regular activities, Ms. M testified that she has bad days-which she defined as not being able to get out of bed- every day. Yet she also testified that she is able to use the bathroom and bathe, but sometimes needs help. Ms. M also testified that her aunt, Ms. Williams, assists her by making meals. She told the ALJ she could drive, but only out of necessity.

         As to her physical symptoms, Ms. M testified that she is not able to squat, bend over, or carry anything due to arthritis in her knees, back, and shoulders and that she suffers constant pain in her buttocks. She contended that she has issues both sitting and standing for longer than 5-15 minutes at a time and cannot walk without a walker.

         Ms. M also reported mental symptoms including issues with concentration and memory, such as she is unable to remember what medications she takes. Ms. M further testified that she feels unable to deal with people. Ms. M visits her psychiatrist twice a week and was hospitalized for panic attacks five times in two years.

         Ms. Williams then testified that she routinely visits Ms. M, who lives alone, and assists her with meals and her medications. Specifically, Ms. Williams noted that she has to remind Ms. M to take her multiple medications. Ms. Williams also testified that Ms. M does not stay in bed all day, but that she retreats to her room if anyone else comes over. She further reported that over time, she has witnessed Ms. M’s physical impairments compound her mental impairments to the point that Ms. M covers her windows with sheets out of concern that people outside are talking about her.

         After the hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision applying the five-step disability evaluation process described in the SSA’s regulations. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4)[2]. At Step One, the ALJ found that Ms. M had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of October 1, 2013. At Step Two, the ALJ found that Ms. M suffered from severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, obesity, bilateral degenerative joint disease of the knees, unspecified peripheral neuropathy of the hands, borderline intellectual functioning, major depression/bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder/panic disorder without agoraphobia, and ADHD. At Step Three, the ALJ found that Ms. M was not presumptively disabled after comparing her severe impairments to the Listings in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         Before proceeding to the Step Four analysis, the ALJ determined that Ms. M retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), but never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally climbing ramps or stairs, stopping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. The ALJ also found that Ms. M is able to understand, remember, and carry out instructions for simple, routine tasks; use judgment to make simple work-related decisions; and frequently respond appropriately to coworkers and the public. [DE 9 at 27]. Based on this RFC, the ALJ found at Step Four that Ms. M cannot perform her past relevant work as a hospital cleaner. At Step Five, however, the ALJ found that Ms. M can perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, namely marker, router, and collator operator as defined by the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. M has not been under a disability, as defined by the Social Security Act, from October 1, 2013, through the date of his decision. Ms. M now challenges the ALJ’s decision.

         Specifically, Ms. M argues that the ALJ’s RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence alleging that the ALJ did not properly weigh the medical opinions of record and therefore impermissibly “played doctor” resulting in error harmful to her.


         On judicial review, the Social Security Act requires that the Court accept the Commissioner‘s factual findings if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). Thus, a court reviewing the findings of an ALJ will reverse only if the findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ has applied an erroneous legal standard. Briscoe v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence must be “more than a scintilla by may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Thus, substantial evidence is simply ‚Äúsuch relevant ...

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